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Making the Lynk at Mount Holyoke: Institutionalizing Integrative Learning
This case study tells the story of how Mount Holyoke College developed a “curriculum-to-career” project to institutionalize integrative learning on our campus. Our goal was to create conditions for learning in which students could connect multiple experiences, disciplines and interests, and translate those experiences in confident, adaptive, and flexible ways.
The central goal expressed in our 2011 strategic plan was to better connect a liberal arts education to career preparation and life goals. However, the details of how to implement this goal were not immediately obvious. Different stakeholders expressed specific aspirations around learning goals, curricular renewal, student employment, and the college’s reputation. They asked: Would more career-focused elements appeal to prospective students? Would these elements replace the liberal arts with vocationalism? How should we best deploy alumnae mentors and employers and manage expectations in this effort? Parents and students asked if the college could guarantee the quality of internships. Trustees and administrators argued that a new curriculum would help solve financial challenges. The faculty was split. Some said, “Don’t we already do this?” Others said, “That’s not my job.”
The big question was, could we aim for a transformation of our liberal arts model to “shift the needle” on student development and career outcomes? We aimed for a cultural shift rather than a small tweak. We knew that we already offered extremely high-quality experiences for students in some programs, but our goal now was to find a way to offer these transformative experiences to all of our students. In a series of summits, faculty seminars, and planning reports in the 2012–13 academic year, we imagined curriculum-to-career as something that was not just an add-on that was delivered beyond the faculty—parallel to the regular curriculum—or in one specialized program serving a few students.
The vision, as it developed, was an ambitious plan to embed the resources for career preparation directly into the liberal arts core for every student. Our argument was that if we could foster the skills of lifelong goal setting and reflection for integrative learning, and if we could scaffold academic, internship, and career choices with enhanced advising in a way that was perceptible to students over the four years of their undergraduate career, then our graduates would be better prepared to translate their learning into post-graduate career entry.
Challenges and Opportunities
Our big aspiration faced big challenges. Most daunting were the sheer number of moving pieces and the scale of the change imagined. As it was envisioned, a curriculum-to-career approach would touch every major stakeholder, every student, and every part of the curriculum. There was a curricular plan, an enrollment plan, an alumnae plan, a communications plan, an institutional development strategy, and an advising initiative. Few of these plans were explicitly coordinated with each other, and various stakeholders expressed quite specific, even conflicting, goals. An immediate question then was how to connect disparate conversations to manage expectations and to work together to deliver on our promise.
A number of faculty also asserted that Mount Holyoke was, in many ways, already doing curriculum-to-career. There was truth in this. Mount Holyoke offered many programs with a curriculum-to-career focus. These included traditional career advising in the Career Development Center, the Community-Based Learning Program, and our interdisciplinary Nexus Program, which harnessed hands-on learning through internships. We offered a substantial set of global programs too, with a robust study abroad program and a flourishing international internships program. A vibrant and quickly growing Center for the Environment sponsored high-end internships, too, supported by a well-developed alumnae network. Mount Holyoke College is known for robust summer science opportunities that are part of a critical pipeline for women into STEM fields. We have similarly distinguished lineages in the performing arts and in areas of applied policy, international relations, and government.
Given this curricular richness, why did we need a curriculum-to-career program? Did we just need to repackage what we already did? Or, was the challenge of a curriculum-to-career program an unprecedented opportunity to come together and align our efforts to deliver on the college’s promise: namely, that the liberal arts offer the best possible preparation for careers and citizenship in the twenty-first century?
Although the curriculum-to-career idea had many antecedents at Mount Holyoke, it was the strategic planning process led by the new president and board chair that provided a mandate for creating a new agenda. The strategic plan was grounded in the work of four fast-track task forces. The curriculum-to-career task force reviewed institutional data about student outcomes and placed those in the context of institutional challenges and trends in the wider landscape of employment and higher education. This process was the basis of a renewed commitment to better prepare our students for career entry.
Following creation of the strategic plan, we conducted a careful audit of existing resources and programs with a curriculum- to-career profile at the college. This audit was an important part of building the project. It produced actionable findings and also helped us to understand what we were doing as a community, and where the challenges might lie. In a range of subsequent events and programs, we cast the net widely and brought people together for discussion, not only within the academic division but also across student affairs, enrollment, the Alumnae Association, and many other offices.
On the faculty side, in the fall 2012 we formed a group entitled Preparing Students to Learn Beyond the Gates: A Faculty Seminar on Integrative Learning. The focus was student preparation for experiential learning at Mount Holyoke. The goals were (1) to create more individual courses or units in courses that intentionally prepared students for different kinds of applied experiences, (2) to build a cohort of faculty who thought about how to support students’ experiential learning, and (3) to make recommendations about experiential learning to the college. The seminar drew together twenty faculty and staff from across many academic programs and from every division—career development, library and technology, community-based learning, and global initiatives. Participants received a stipend.
The seminar produced substantial payoffs in both the short and long term. In the short term, our dynamic (sometimes heated) conversations revealed to each of us that individually we held only a piece of the overall puzzle. The need for better coordination and internal communication was palpable. The seminar also focused attention on the lack of financial support to meet student demand for internships, and the fact that students lacked understanding about how academic skills acquired and practiced in the liberal arts classroom were directly relevant to career preparation.
The longer-term payoffs included the creation of three curricular groups that focused on the first-year experience, sophomore programming, and capstone moments. Each of these curricular groups has since produced new or revised programming. In addition, most of the people who participated in the original seminar went on to serve in a range of other roles where they supported curriculum-to-career initiatives. Other participants in chemistry, geology and geography, environmental studies, and history have developed new pre-internship courses, organized regular alumnae career events, sponsored new internship opportunities, or developed new capstone courses. We refer to this as spontaneous curricular innovation.
Several lessons emerge from this experience. One is that building faculty leadership for a new initiative takes time, but it’s worth it. An iterative process of communication among faculty increases the likelihood that the final language of change is spoken in an authentic community voice. Trusted faculty voices are important, and it is helpful when they come from a broad array of departments and disciplines.
Connected to this is the importance of harnessing existing faculty culture: Mount Holyoke has a tradition of convening faculty seminars to engage faculty across divisions and programs. This is why we chose to use the seminar format to invite colleagues into the conversation, to listen, and to learn from one another. This appeared to slow us down in a context of administrative pressure for fast results, but we knew we had to keep building buy-in as we moved forward.
Building Campus Support for the Curriculum-to-Career Project
The other curriculum-to-career agenda-setting event held in the fall 2012 was an Internship Summit that collected thirty key professionals, faculty, and staff from across every major division of the college, including the president. Participants were asked to analyze a case study and engage in a visioning project around internships. The summit was an important moment when many staff and faculty from across the campus met for the first time to discuss internships. In fact, the summit became a popular event. Coordinators of what had started out as a small group event were swamped by requests to attend. This indicated enormous appetite for the curriculum-to-career discussion among college staff and administrators in particular.
There were several payoffs from this event. One immediate effect was a clearer understanding of what was needed to execute the curriculum-to-career agenda administratively—resources, new administrative processes, and most challengingly, better data and technical support. This group also took away a message about the need for alignment across the college, which was an important consideration given our widely distributed internship offerings (see fig. 1).
Figure 1. The Challenge of Alignment: How Our Curriculum-to-Career Project Became the Lynk
What helped to sustain forward momentum following the fall 2012 was a set of critical administrative decisions that supported the curriculum-to-career agenda. These included the decision to assign a dedicated administrative dean in academic affairs to coordinate the curriculum-to-career initiative, a decision to place curriculum-to-career at the center of the rebranding process, and the choice to connect our pre-existing enhanced advising initiative to curriculum-to-career as a way to support a robust environment for integrative learning (see fig. 2). By mid-2013, the decision was made to move the Career Development Center into the Academic Division. Finally, in June 2013, the president approved financial support for one qualified internship for every Mount Holyoke student, to be taken in the summer of the sophomore or junior year. This became a major focus of Institutional Advancement in 2013. All of these decisions provided concrete and also symbolic support for the curriculum-to-career agenda, which in June 2013 was renamed the Lynk.
Figure 2. The Lynk: Levels of Curriculum-to-Career Progress
Implementing the Lynk
In summer 2013, the college began to implement the Lynk by embedding practical experience in the liberal arts core. This involved reorganizing the educational requirements in our internship application, enhancing our career and academic advising, and creating other student-facing programs around internships—all of which involved an extremely high degree of cooperation among offices and units, as well as faculty leadership and participation.
Second, we began a communication rollout that presented the Lynk to students as the umbrella for our many existing opportunities—a task in which we are still engaged. We have learned that while communication with students about new opportunities is paramount, it is also critical to speak the language of the Lynk in the same words with faculty, staff, trustees, and alumnae.
Third, we have built new programming and connected it with current offerings to support the Lynk. We are particularly focused on enhanced advising, around which we organized another faculty seminar in the spring 2014. Borrowing lessons learned in the first year of our curriculum-to-career project, we identified facilitators for this seminar who either taught in the first-year program, our post-internship course, or who were leaders in defining the new Sophomore Focus Program offered this year.
Last, but most important for building faculty engagement and leadership, the incoming dean of faculty proposed a four-year department strategy to connect the Lynk with every academic major at the college. The Lynk department strategy is a clear statement of the centrality of curriculum-to-career as an intellectual project embedded in the liberal arts core of Mount Holyoke. A quarter of all departments sign up each year and they are provided a budget to conduct research, build databases, develop new courses, or otherwise engage in the Lynk. In return, Lynk departments are the first to see academic renewal on the college website as we move to a new relational architecture. The first cohort of Lynk department faculty has found this to be exciting work. Lynk departments are also called first into college-wide assessment initiatives, as we move towards our ten-year reaccreditation by NEASC, and also into ongoing discussions of how we will collectively deliver on the promise of our recently passed college learning goals. In all these ways, the curriculum-to-career idea is embedded strategically: in assessment initiatives, communication plans, staffing and infrastructure decisions, alumnae relations, and ongoing curricular development.
Assessing The Lynk
Two years into Mount Holyoke’s curriculum-to-career project, what have we learned and what is our plan for assessment?
We know that an important indicator of the success of any project is when other people genuinely take up your ideas and speak them in their own voices to express a common agenda. This has occurred at several important points in the curriculum-to-career process at Mount Holyoke. For example, faculty and staff have voluntarily brought existing programs into alignment with the Lynk. Many members of the faculty have signed up to engage the Lynk at the level of the major, and others have proposed courses, events, institutional partnerships, and research opportunities that are explicitly connected to the Lynk. Alumnae also seek to connect with the Lynk in large numbers. Most important, the college’s leadership and many donors have made a substantial financial commitment to support up to $3,000 (domestic) and $3,600 (international) for one summer internship for every student, a decision that signaled to every stakeholder the seriousness of the institution’s commitment to the Lynk. This pattern of doubling down on our original investment in curriculum-to-career is the first and most important indicator of success.
The second indicator of success is the extent of faculty buy-in to the Lynk and curriculum-to-career more generally. What we have proposed, after all, is a substantial shift in curricular emphasis. To be an authentic expression of the liberal arts project, the Lynk requires the broad support of the faculty. What we have found is that faculty leaders emerge precisely in the process of communication, and it is important that communication is iterative and open, and that a wide array of stakeholders is included. At Mount Holyoke, the curriculum-to-career agenda benefitted from the involvement of influential members of the faculty who stepped up and made the case for the project as one that would genuinely benefit our students. We also benefitted from a process that offered opportunities for creative Lynk-related faculty development over time. As members of the AAC&U’s Teagle Project on Faculty Leadership for Integrative Liberal Learning, we charted faculty participation from the beginning of the 2012 academic year, and saw a slow building of faculty support for curriculum-to-career: between the fall 2012 and the fall 2013, 60 percent of our faculty (107 of 180) participated in Lynk-related activities in a sustained way—and the numbers continue to grow.
The final indicator of success will be to “shift the needle” on student outcomes. Short term, this means increasing the number of students in internships and other hands-on learning opportunities while they are at Mount Holyoke. As of the date of writing, we have seen a 55 percent increase in students in Lynk-funded summer opportunities.
We also hope to see more students engaging in multiple opportunities for research, community-based learning, study abroad, work, and internships, and we have altered our assessment instruments to capture this goal. We will also assess the number of students presenting internship findings at the post-internship LEAP Symposium and our research-focused senior symposium. We believe we will see more students able to demonstrate integrative learning—as evidenced by their ability to translate and narrate their story for diverse audiences with confidence. We also expect to find more students making connections with faculty, staff, and alumnae around academic planning and career choices. Finally, we expect that students will report more successful post-graduation outcomes: more students will graduate with a good fit job or another opportunity in hand, and a greater number of recent graduates will enter a challenging job market with confidence in their ability to excel and to adapt in the face of change.
Eleanor Townsley is a professor of sociology and associate dean of faculty; Becky Wai-Ling Packard is a professor of psychology and education and the director of the Weissman Center for Leadership; Eva Paus is a professor of economics and the Carol Hoffmann Collins Director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives—all of Mount Holyoke College.