Liberal Education

From the Editor: Work and the Purpose of College

In 1949, at the age of fifteen, my grandmother sailed to the United States. She and my great-grandmother had fled Ukraine during World War II, ending up in a refugee camp in Germany before finally arriving in Syracuse, New York, where my great-grandmother found work as a maid in a doctor’s home. While my grandmother could speak Ukrainian, German, Polish, and some French, she couldn’t speak English. The teachers in Syracuse put her in kindergarten to start with the ABCs. The class laughed. “I thought, go ahead, laugh—I want to learn,” she reflects decades later. After school, she practiced English by listening to baseball games on the radio. She rooted for a player she thought was Ukrainian, later realizing that, with her then-limited English, she’d misheard—he was Puerto Rican. In the next year and a half, she finished the eighth grade, having mastered English well enough to graduate second in her class. “Imagine that,” she says, “a foreigner being second-highest.”

She married before she was seventeen, taking night classes to earn her GED, then secretarial courses at a vocational high school. “But the subjects weren’t my passion,” she says. Her teacher encouraged her to attend college, but how, she asked, was she going to do that when, at eighteen, she already had a daughter to care for? She found a job at a tire company, later at a department store, and then at a bakery, doing financial calculations with a comptometer. She never went back to school.

As I edited this issue—which explores how a liberal education can help prepare students for meaningful careers—I thought about how my grandmother, had she gone to college, might have expanded on her language abilities to find a fulfilling profession.

Nearly every article in this issue touches on the importance of global awareness and intercultural knowledge to ready students for, as Margee Ensign writes, embarking on careers and solving complex world problems such as climate change, the refugee crises, and the automation of jobs and other such consequences of ever-enhancing technology. Indeed, part of higher education’s mission, writes Terrel Rhodes, is “to prepare our graduates for lifelong learning and global citizenship.” Liberal education beyond the United States is also crucial, and Kyle David Anderson and Kyaw Moe Tun describe how Parami University has brought liberal education to Myanmar, promoting understanding of democracy and social justice in a country still transitioning from a military dictatorship to a functioning democracy.

Two articles offer models for career-focused language and internationalization programs—one at the University of Rhode Island, the other at Normandale Community College, which created one of the first Somali area studies programs at a community college. Understanding other cultures also makes good business sense, notes Chris Allison, relating how his liberal arts education prepared him to lead a tech company.

In reflecting on her twenty-five-year presidency at Bay Path University, Carol Leary highlights her institution’s One Day a Week Saturday Program, which offers nontraditional adult women students—like my grandmother might have been—the chance to earn their degree in as little as a year. Higher education, Leary writes, must “adopt new learning models that will meet our students where they are in their lives while addressing affordability.”


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