Are we asking the wrong questions? (Part I)

s-LOST-largeFrequently I find myself sitting across the table from a college student who is anxious and eager to have me help them answer burning questions about major and career choice. The conversation is different depending on the student, but many of them have similar struggles finding their path:

  • What is the “right” major?
  • What jobs can you actually do with this major?
  • Would this major or that major be better?
  • What about a minor? Which will make it easier for me to get a job?
  • And the dreaded… My parents want me to do this, but I am not sure. What do YOU think?

At the heart of all of these questions is a longing to know: How will I decide? Will I be okay? 

I have great compassion for students struggling to find their place. I remember not long ago sitting in a career coach’s office with similar questions, although mine were maybe a little different. My struggle to find career satisfaction was less about not knowing what inspired me, and more about figuring out how I could get paid to do work that I enjoyed. In many ways I still struggle to feel like I am fully able to realize all my professional potential and interests through my day job. More on that another day.

Yet recently, I find myself pushing students and prompting them to consider whether they are really asking the right questions at all? Could it be that we aren’t even close to the target? 

The world of work has changed dramatically and traditional-aged “millenial” college students face an uncertain and thrilling new terrain. Regrettably many of their coping skills are not sufficient to help them weather the challenge. (For more on this see Brooke Donatone’s recent Slate article: Why Millenials Can’t Grow Up).

So what are we to do? Shouldn’t we push these students to ask tougher questions? The kinds of questions that will help them find their place, clarify their purpose, and contribute their greatest gifts in service of the world?

Of course we should.  

Frameworks for pushing students to consider bigger questions abound, yet one particular initiative has captured my attention this week. The Association of America’s Colleges and Universities (AACU) has launched an initiative called Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP). What intrigues me about LEAP is that it brings together educators and employers, challenging both groups to consider what skills and qualities are most needed to meet the demands of our global community and economy in this time. Consistent with other surveys, LEAP suggests that the skills needed to thrive in this new landscape extend beyond narrow professional training.

By defining Learning Outcomes, High-Impact Practices, and Assessment strategies, the LEAP initiative outlines a framework that career coaches, academic institutions, families, employers and other concerned groups can use to challenge our nation’s young professionals to consider bigger questions about what meaningful work will mean to them.

Further, they highlight successful partnerships between colleges/universities and employers that demonstrate how mutual interests can be achieved through careful planning. One of the most interesting results of this effort found that “93% of employers say that a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than a candidate’s undergraduate major” (Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities- Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) Employer-Educator Compact, April 2013).

If undecided and exploratory students (and working adults, for that matter) are struggling to figure out how to decide, wondering if they will be okay, trying to sort out who they are and who they wish to be… Is the question really, “Which major is right?” Absolutely not.

So what questions should we be asking? And where can we find the answers that students, families, and our communities truly need to thrive in this uncertain space? 

Stay tuned for a future blog post as the conversation continues in Part II. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.

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