Mapping a Path from Curriculum to Career: The Lynk Initiative at Mount Holyoke College
With the value of college increasingly being questioned as tuition continues to rise and the job market remains weak, how, asks Mount Holyoke College President Lynn Pasquerella, “do we articulate the value of a liberal education in a compelling way to those outside of the academy?” At Mount Holyoke, a liberal arts college for women in Massachusetts, the answer was to build a bridge between the liberal arts curriculum and students’ careers, and to create a comprehensive college-wide infrastructure to support that bridge.
The new initiative, known as Lynk, encourages students to start thinking early about connections between their academic work and career aspirations. It offers support—in the form of advising, mentorship, and funding—to help students complete internships, research projects, or other experiential learning opportunities that will allow them to demonstrate and reflect on the various applications of their studies in the liberal arts and sciences. “You are forced to ask questions of yourself,” says Tatum Lindsay, a recent graduate with a degree in gender studies. “How do I get where I want to go, who can mentor me, how do I identify the next step? When you have a community of people helping you with that and challenging you, [those steps] become much clearer, and it emerges what you’re passionate about.”
Involving the Whole Campus
The Lynk program comprises four stages: goal setting, professional development, practical experience, and “the launch”—a series of symposiums and presentations at which students showcase what they have learned and reflect on their next steps. During each stage, students work with teachers and mentors from across the entire college, including the faculty, the career development center, and the college’s three academic centers: the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, the Weissman Center for Leadership, and the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives. Faculty and staff share advising roles and co-teach courses that prepare students to move out of the classroom into internships or other professional experiences. “We’ve created parallel structures so that Lynk is not any one department’s responsibility,” Pasquerella says.
Lynk is in some ways a natural extension of Mount Holyoke’s history as “a women’s college with an emphasis on purposeful engagement with the world,” says Eleanor Townsley, associate dean of faculty and professor of sociology. While some faculty members were initially concerned that the program focused too much on vocationalism, Pasquerrella notes that the career development center was moved into the academic affairs unit “to make sure we never lose sight of the fact that this is all about the liberal arts and sciences.”
Mount Holyoke College students use a campus lake as their laboratory in a Restoration Ecology course, one of many that connects classroom learning with real-life applications.
Lynk also provides funding for twenty new faculty “innovation hires” over the next four years. Innovation hires allow departments to bring in scholars and practitioners who are working in new, growing fields like bioinformatics, or who complement signature programs at Mount Holyoke such as environmental science. The hires are temporary, but if departments can develop more programs around a new faculty member’s work, the position can gain a tenure line.
Students continue meeting with their advisors and mentors in the sophomore year and also begin undergoing professional development for the internships and research projects they will undertake later on. The career development center offers workshops on writing résumés and cover letters, mock interview sessions, and a template and printer for business cards. For students who have already chosen an internship, the center can help them locate housing in other cities and prepare a budget for the summer.
One of the most important elements of Lynk is a new commitment to provide funding for one internship, summer research project, or other experiential learning opportunity for every student at Mount Holyoke. In order to streamline the funding process, and to make it into a learning opportunity, the college has introduced the Universal Application for Funding. “We’ve put a lot of scaffolding into the process a student needs to complete to receive her money for a project,” says Kirk Lange, director of international experiential learning. “This application has become a learning tool in itself, further stitching together the work on campus and beyond the gates.”
A student applying for funding must meet with an advisor with whom she can map out the relationship between her academic and professional aspirations. The student must also discuss the learning goals for the internship with both an academic advisor and the employer or host for the project, so all parties involved are aware that the project is a learning experience with particular goals. Students must also complete professional ethics training and a brief training module, offered by the career development center, on moving from academic to professional culture.
Connecting Classroom and Experiential Learning
There is a tendency to use “internships” as shorthand for all the different types of experiential projects students are completing, but in fact “we’re trying to support students across a wide range of interests,” Lange says, “and the students intending those things can need some different kinds of support.” In addition to working in internships, students also conduct research with faculty, work on community-based initiatives, or complete some combination of these projects internationally. As director of international experiential learning, Lange splits his time between advising students on the different international opportunities and cultivating partnerships with host organizations in other countries to support these projects.
With all students now completing experiential learning projects, Lange is under to pressure to find more host organizations, but Mount Holyoke’s alumni have stepped in to help. “They’ve been essential to the development of Lynk,” Lange says. “This has resonated very strongly with them, and they’ve been deeply involved in internship creation and research sponsorship.” Mount Holyoke has a large international student population, and many graduates go on to live and work abroad, so alumnae provide a crucial resource for international internship placement.
Before leaving campus to begin an experiential project at home or abroad, though, students must complete College 210: Ready for the World—Preparing for Your Internship and Research Project. The half-semester course, offered in the spring, prepares students to apply what they have been learning in their academic studies to a professional setting. A second course, College 211: Tying It All Together, is required in the fall after students complete their experiential project, and focuses on further integrating academic and professional work.
“We did a lot of turning to our classmates and explaining to them what we were doing,” Lindsay says. “Biology students have to say to the gender studies students, ‘what does your research mean?’— and the gender studies students do the same, which is not easy. But having that practice is very important—you have to know how to take your research and interests out of the academy and make them relevant to someone in the workforce.”
Teaching the College 211 to post-internship students “has been one of the highlights of my career,” Townsley says. The students “develop this metacognitive ability—they put together the different pieces of their learning in a way that helps them tell their story to different audiences… it’s very powerful.”
Recalibration and Reflection
The final phase of Lynk, the Launch, provides students the chance to showcase what they’ve learned both in the classroom and out of it, and to demonstrate the connections between those worlds. Students present the results of their research projects or discuss the work they did in internships or community initiatives at a series of symposia open to the entire college community. Students also give a literal elevator pitch about the connections between their academic studies and their experiential projects—career center staff film the students as they make their pitch while riding up and down an elevator, then offer feedback on the presentation.
“I actually call this part ‘recalibration and reflection,’” Lindsay says. The symposia not only allow students to showcase their success, she says—they are also informal mentoring opportunities, allowing graduating seniors to demonstrate to first- and second-year students how they achieved what they did. “That’s a powerful message, when your friend or suitemate or someone you met at the dining hall says yes, you can have an internship at the Smithsonian, just like me. You can do whatever it is you want to do.”
The Lynk program is undergoing its own moment of reflection: assessment staff are beginning to analyze data from the first two years of the program. While it’s too early to say what the data will show, Pasquerella is hoping to see increased retention in the student population, especially in the college’s most vulnerable student populations. “High touch makes a difference, and having partnerships with faculty outside the classroom has an impact,” she says. She also hopes to see “a more visible commitment to social justice and racial equality. In the past, students who had to work in the summer didn’t have access to the same experiential learning opportunities as those who weren’t under those financial pressures. That’s something that has changed.”
As Mount Holyoke students are standing up and showing their classmates, professors, and advisors what they’ve accomplished, Pasquerella hopes the world outside the college is watching, too. “The real benefits [of Lynk] have to do with articulating the value of liberal education to those whose rhetoric says the only reason to get an education is to get a job. We need to push back against that, and these types of programs can show the value of liberal education.”
Mount Holyoke President Lynn Pasquerella is a member of the LEAP Presidents' Trust and a signatory of the Employer-Educator Compact, a statement from educational and business leaders about making high-quality learning a national priority as employers seek college graduates with a broader set of skills and knowledge.
Read more about Lynk at the program’s website. You can also read more about how liberal education is preparing students for the work place in AAC&U’s recent publication How Liberal Arts and Sciences Majors Fare in Employment.