NACE Journal, February 2016
Google the phrase "transforming lives through education" and 18 pages of hits emerge. This cursory exploration of the topic reveals that scores of universities in countries around the globe have incorporated the concept of transformation into their core missions.
But what exactly does it mean to transform someone's life and how exactly are institutions of higher learning delivering on this promise?
According to the dictionary, transform is defined as "a thorough or dramatic change in form, appearance, or structure." It also means "to change in condition, nature, or character." Clearly educating a young person and exposing him or her to new ideas and experiences is likely to have a profound impact on the student's life, but is it necessarily transformative?
Everyone who works in higher education has at least one tale to tell about a remarkable conversion they witnessed. We all have our version of the shy, struggling accounting student who found his passion through an elective art class and decided to attend graduate school in Florence to pursue a career in the fine arts. Or perhaps it is the example of the selfish, self-absorbed, student who, after an eye-opening study-abroad program in India, decided to become a social worker. Maybe your illustration is of the nerdy kid, bullied throughout his life, who found his voice in college and went on to become a civil rights lawyer. And, of course, every campus has a story of a first-generation student who went on to make a fortune on Wall Street and returned to her community to share her success. We proudly share these stories to demonstrate the possibilities for transformation through attaining a college education.
Yet, consider the story of Dottie. She was a bright student from a rough, inner-city neighborhood plagued by a failing school system. She was about to age out of the foster care system when an ambitious guidance counselor helped Dottie apply to college as a remedy to avoid becoming homeless. Four years later, faculty and staff, who had worked tirelessly to help Dottie get through the college experience despite her weak academic foundation, beamed with pride as she was handed her diploma. Without a doubt, Dottie was educated, but was she transformed in a way that improved her life? Six months after graduation, Dottie reported that she was living in her old neighborhood, working in an unskilled warehouse job. Without the connections, resources, and needed life skills to capitalize on her education, it could be argued that while Dottie was marginally better off, her life was not transformed.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find students like Pete, a young man of privilege who attended the best schools, had access to private tutors, and had prodding parents to push him through high school and the arduous college application process. Despite his equally unremarkable college experience and C+ average, his influential parents used their connections to help Pete land an internship during school and ultimately a job after graduation. While a perfectly acceptable outcome, this can hardly be described as transformative either.
While the Dotties and Petes of the world do not negate the truly transformative successes our universities provide, they remind us not to use the word glibly. A handful of transformations out of a class of hundreds do not earn us the right to believe we transform all lives.
I often think of the college experience as the ultimate immersive learning experience. During their college careers, our charges are completely immersed in their roles as students, oftentimes excluding other aspects of their life from the experience. I wonder how well we provide them with the requisite skills to help them transition from their academic experience back to their families and neighborhoods post-graduation. Institutions of higher education prepare their students to be successful, productive, and engaged members of society. We purport to accomplish this by providing a solid foundation of skills, knowledge, and experiences to participate in meaningful and satisfying careers. We assume these concepts mean the same thing to people of all socioeconomic groups. They do not.
In 1996, Dr. Ruby K. Payne introduced the concept of hidden rules of economic class in her seminal work A Framework for Understanding Poverty (third revised edition, 2003). She explained the mental models and driving forces for each class; these serve as internal pictures of how the world works. According to Payne, for those who come from poverty, the driving forces are survival, personal relationships, and entertainment. For those in the middle class, the driving forces are work, achievement, and material security, while the driving forces for the wealthy are developing strategic relationships in the financial, political, and social relationships arenas. Understanding these fundamental differences allows educators to listen, hear, and understand the choices and behaviors of our students (and ourselves!) in new ways. Perhaps the values espoused on campus are in conflict with the world from which our students have emerged. How can we ensure they have the tools to navigate those conflicts?
First, we could introduce the concept of mental models as defined by the Aha! process.1 Helping students engage in such contemplative thinking beyond the classroom in order to process and own what they have learned is the link to transformation. It is clear that academics alone do not lead to a complete metamorphosis. However, through the pedagogical unpacking of new ideas and experiences, garnered through curricular as well as co-curricular activities, we can help students mindfully incorporate their academic experience into the totality of their lives.
Career services offices can and must play a vital role throughout our students' academic careers to assist in this unpacking. No longer are we merely in an administrative office that is responsible for job boards and resume workshops; we must assume the role of a career/life coach and introduce our students to their future selves. By understanding their internal views of how the world works, we can expose them to new perspectives through co-curricular activities like athletics, clubs and activities, panels and discussion groups, study-abroad programs, and internships. Partnering with faculty and other key administrators, we are poised to challenge and encourage students to step outside their comfort zones and explore their mental models while simultaneously honoring their values.
Let us engage students by asking profound and thought-provoking questions to guide them through the unpacking of their ongoing experiences. Rather than ask "What do you want to do?" we must inquire "Who do you want to become?" or "What do you want your life to look like?"We need to help them consider not only which career paths they want to follow, but also assist them in identifying their unique gifts and talents. It is through the understanding of their uniqueness that they will discover how they are called to use their innate abilities to solve problems, which in turn, will give their lives meaning and fulfill their purpose. Then we must teach them how through academic rigor.
As we consider NACE's definition of career readiness and the associated competencies, let us think about how we deliver curricular and co-curricular services to ensure we are providing our students with the transformative experience we promise.
General education courses and major requirements provide ample opportunities for growth in critical thinking and problem solving, teamwork and collaboration, and information technology application. The co-curricular activities build leadership skills, while the experiential learning and service opportunities teach students about professionalism and work ethic. Rounding out the college experience is the 21st century career services office that ensures students integrate the pieces to masterfully manage not only their careers but also their lives.
Institutions of higher learning can and do transform lives. As every stakeholder in the educational process recognizes and embraces his or her role, we can increase the number of transformative tales we have to tell.