How do you motivate liberal arts students to learn to successfully describe their transferable skills to employers? And how do you persuade students to create a résumé and cover letter, flesh out their LinkedIn and job placement profiles at the career center, and network with alumni?
By giving them a grade, of course.
For the past seven semesters, a team of faculty, administrators, and alumni at Hofstra University has offered a one-credit course called Careers and the Liberal Arts. A co-instructor and I offer students majoring in liberal arts fields weekly eighty-minute sessions on subjects that include career skills assessment, résumés, cover letters, informational interviewing, job interviewing, and graduate school applications. Students learn to network by interacting with three panels of Hofstra alumni who follow their group presentations with small-group mentoring sessions to answer students’ questions. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, participants clustered around high-top tables in university meeting rooms. During the pandemic, they met in online breakout rooms.
Careers and the Liberal Arts was the brainchild of Benjamin Rifkin, professor of Russian and former dean of the Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He spearheaded a collaboration among the university’s Center for Career Design and Development, Office of Alumni Relations, and liberal arts department chairs. Rifkin, along with career counselor Sabeen Sheikh, who has served as a co-instructor of the course, developed the initial syllabus. Staffing the class is key. A senior professor, a more junior career counselor, and an undergraduate peer teacher provide a mix of skills and experiences.
The university advertises the class during academic registration periods, with the goal of recruiting a class of twenty undergraduates majoring primarily in the social sciences and humanities. In thirteen sessions, instructors encourage students to think consciously about the competencies they are developing in their liberal arts classes. Initially, students pore over American Association of Colleges and Universities’ employer surveys that attest to the workplace importance of critical and creative thinking, problem solving, oral and written communications, teamwork, and the ability to work with people of varied cultural backgrounds.
Students then start to identify the transferable skills they are developing in their liberal arts courses, particularly though classes that employ high-impact practices such as internships, undergraduate research, capstone projects, project-based learning, service learning, and study abroad experiences. Students create LinkedIn and Handshake accounts. They plan and conduct informational interviews with their contacts. They workshop their elevator pitches, draft cover letters and résumés, and prepare for job and graduate school interviews.
By far, though, the most hard-hitting sessions involve the three alumni panels, which comprise individuals who had the same majors as the students or are pursuing careers that match the students’ goals. Identifying the alumni is a collaborative endeavor: the co-teachers reach out to their own networks, solicit suggestions from academic department chairs, and consult the university alumni office and the Dean’s Advisory Board. The course instructors schedule the alumni panels strategically throughout the semester, grouping the alumni according to work sector or experience. Alumni who participate on each panel briefly share their advice, then devote a significant amount of time to working with students in small groups where they work on networking skills, job and internship search skills, and cover letters and résumés.
Students’ midterm reflection essays reveal one of the course’s top lessons: life takes unpredicted twists and turns. “My greatest fear when entering college was choosing a major, going down a career path, then feeling stuck in it and subsequently becoming miserable,” wrote Julian, a geography major. “Now I am okay with the fact that I might not necessarily know where I will end up. By learning new skills, I hope to be able to adapt to the changes in the job market and in my own life.”
A discussion with alumnus and attorney Carlo Massaro led Hannah, a political science major, to consider a second career interest. “This class has helped teach me that the degree I get doesn’t always directly translate to the job I end up in,” she wrote. “I found it both interesting and comforting to hear about how [Massaro] was able to major in Spanish yet go into the law profession. This helped me realize that if I do end up being interested in human resources again, I may not have to stress about whether I have the right major for it. I just need to find experiences that can help me land a job.”
The course measurably enhanced students’ competency and confidence. In five successive semesters, the co-instructors and I conducted pre- and post-class surveys using the Career Decision Self-Efficacy Scale–Short Form (CDSES-SF). Over a range of twenty-five items, which included choosing potential majors, selecting an occupation, preparing a good résumé, and managing the job interview process, our classes boosted students’ average self-efficacy between 14 and 30 percent.
One recurring theme in students’ written reflections was newfound career confidence. “I feel confident in stating my strong suits, my skills, and my values,” wrote Cassidy, a criminology major. “Fear only exists when you make it exist.”
Another theme was relief. Most students are apprehensive about networking, but the course helped demystify the process. “The most significant lessons I learned from this course were about networking and connecting,” wrote Ryan, a biology major. “LinkedIn has been a critical resource for my networking. I not only learned about competitive undergraduate research programs at Cold Spring Harbor Labs but also got one of my informational interviews done through connections formed through LinkedIn.”
We have maintained a LinkedIn page for students and guests, and our teaching team has always included an undergraduate teaching assistant who can offer peer counseling. Two graduates of our earlier classes have returned to the course’s alumni panels to share their advice and experiences.
As with so many collaborative projects, Careers and the Liberals Arts has had unforeseen benefits. Friendships and mentoring relationships blossomed among the intergenerational teaching team, with millennials Sheikh and Posner and a rotating cast of Generation Z peer teachers sharing information on technology, opportunities, and pedagogy. We have built a strong network of treasured and supportive alumni, many of whom have volunteered for repeated stints in our small-group networking sessions. We are expanding the university’s outreach to a diverse pool of recent graduates, who in turn have contributed to the college’s internal efforts at building diversity and inclusion.
Sustaining the course, however, has not been easy. For one thing, marketing has been a challenge, given the need to appeal to students in a broad array of majors. Students are naturally inclined to procrastinate on going to the career center and even on contemplating career choices. In addition, faculty may be skeptical about referring students to the class, given its practical intent.
Despite these obstacles, we have found a measure of success. By maintaining ongoing support from the dean’s office of the Hofstra College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, protecting the mixed-instructor model, and conferring regularly with department chairs in the liberal arts, we have managed to build a bridge for students’ journeys from liberal arts classrooms to their careers.
Many thanks to my colleagues Benjamin Rifkin, Sabeen Sheikh, and Cheryl Posner for their work initiating and sustaining this project.