By Cheri Siebken and Megan Scott '96
A liberal arts degree won't prepare you for life after college.
Or at least that's what a lot of magazine articles, news stories, and pundits are telling us. We've all read that the best education for today's students is one that places an emphasis on the professional skills, training, and credentials that will help graduates land their first jobs.
But employers tell a different story. A recent national survey of employers conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media's Marketplace reported that our nation's top employers are looking for employees who "excel in written and oral communication, decision-making, and analytical and research skills." The results of a survey of business and nonprofit leaders conducted by the Association of American College and Universities (AAC&U) show similar findings, citing that 93 percent of employers surveyed say that a "demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate's] undergraduate major."
So who's right? The pundits or the surveys? How do you make sense of these differing opinions?
You turn to the people who can speak first-hand on the benefits of a liberal arts education -- graduates. Knox Magazine spoke with five alumni at differing stages of life after Knox -- from a recent graduate to mid-career professionals to a recent retiree. All have put their liberal arts education -- their Knox education -- to use and have found professional and personal success. Each of them will tell you that the liberal arts are alive and well. In fact, they live their education every day.
Amanda Wollrab-Archer '12
Public Relations and Events Specialist, Allsteel
Minor: Business and Psychology
A month after graduating from Knox, Wollrab-Archer began her career with HNI, parent corporation to 11 companies, including Allsteel and HON. As a public relations and events specialist for Allsteel, she administers the company's social media channels and oversees all corporate events and tradeshows, traveling extensively throughout North America, and manages the financial planning, budgeting, and reconciling of a multi-million dollar marketing budget.
"Knox sets the expectation high for all its seniors and provides a tremendous amount of support prior, during, and after the interviewing process. Because I had a very broad and strong educational foundation that wasn't focused in one particular area, I had many different topics I could touch upon during my interviews, and I truly think that set me apart from my competition.
When you work for a large, global corporation like HNI, you have to understand how the business works. It's not just about marketing or finance or customer support. It's about how all of these cross-functional teams work together to achieve the corporate initiatives. Because my Knox education taught me a variety of business principles, I was able to easily and quickly assimilate this ‘big picture' corporate culture and take on many responsibilities that exceeded past my job title.
At Knox, it's normal for the college president to know your name and for professors to answer phone calls at odd hours of the night. This is something very important to me that I knew I wanted to carry into my career. I took my own initiative to build relationships with Allsteel and HNI executives, and, because of Knox, I was able to do that faster and with more confidence than many of my peers. These relationships will be invaluable to my long-term career growth with HNI."
Hardika Shah '92
Major: Computer Science
Through a job fair her senior year, Shah began her career as a management consultant with Accenture, a multinational consulting firm. For two decades, she worked in more than 10 countries across three continents. After completing her executive MBA, Shah returned to her home country to become a social entrepreneur, raising a fund to finance small and growing Indian businesses.
"The culture of Knox placed us in a community. As an international student, the concept of taking an art, archaeology, or film class as a computer science major was strange at first, but I loved the freedom to explore new subjects and learned how to dissect topics and present my viewpoint in an articulate manner. The hours spent discussing into the wee hours of the morning at the Gizmo may appear like a bunch of students arguing random topics, but what you are really doing is forming the basis of problem solving, of listening to different perspectives, of formulating solutions, and co-creating new ideas. These skills are invaluable in business, especially as we become increasingly connected globally.
My Knox education was instrumental in enabling me to find common ground and have meaningful conversations with clients, business partners, investors, and employees regardless of where I was in the world."
Keith Belzer '85
A nationally recognized trial attorney and international legal-affairs consultant, Belzer has been teaching criminal defense lawyers about the use of story and performance in the courtroom for the last 20 years, a tactic seen as innovative at the time, but which is now being taught in most respected law school legal clinics around the United States.
"I can think of nothing more valuable to a trial lawyer than a liberal arts education. My education at Knox prepared me much more for the work of a trial lawyer than law school. Trial work is about learning about and incorporating radically different areas of expertise from case to case. In one case the ability to understand the science of DNA and how it connects or excludes a suspect is the difference between locking up an innocent person or getting a dangerous criminal off the streets. In the next case, it might be the ability to logically construct an argument that wins the day. In a third case, it might be the ability to help an innocent person articulate a story in a public forum with the high stakes of their life on the line. Trial work requires the flexibility to think across subject matters and the ability to learn new areas of expertise on a regular basis. A liberal arts degree is the perfect training ground for such work."
Donald Raleigh '71
Major: Russian Area Studies
Immediately following graduation, Raleigh enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Indiana University and, after defending his dissertation (chaired by Professor Alexander Rabinowitch '56), taught at the University of Hawaii for nine years before accepting an appointment at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he has taught Russian history since 1988.
"At Knox, I majored in Russian area studies, a demanding field of study; took the equivalent of a minor field in history; wrote an honors thesis; and spent the last two trimesters of my senior year at Leningrad University. This intense, remarkably interdisciplinary undergraduate experience prepared me well for my career. I would argue that the value of a liberal arts education is so obvious that attempting to justify it serves only to detract from its worth. Those values, skills, and dispositions seem even timelier in today's post-industrial world.
I would encourage Knox students to follow their hearts, to dream big, and to chase after what interests them most rather than trying to outguess future job markets, to please family, or to do what's safe and practical. Keep passion in your life."
Fay Stevenson-Smith '64
A first-generation college student from the South, after graduation Stevenson-Smith traveled to Liberia, West Africa, where she taught for two years. She completed a master's degree in psychology, worked in television, then attended medical school at Temple University and practiced obstetrics and gynecology for 17 years. After retiring from medicine, Stevenson-Smith began a new career as a sculptor.
"Knox was the ‘nest' in which I learned to believe that I had a right to experience my world to its fullest. The career choices from that point all in some way reflected what I felt my liberal arts education entitled me to pursue. It did not seem strange that I majored in chemistry but decided to get a master's degree in psychology. I gave myself the right to explore other interests like trying my hand at television production. I felt equally sure that Knox had adequately prepared me to study medicine once that bug bit me. Still, the most valuable experience for me at Knox was to learn that I really loved the creative arts and would eventually discover a passion to produce my own as a sculptor. I am the product of all of the possibilities offered by a liberal arts education."