Fall 2017

What can you do with a liberal arts degree?

Plenty—and the U is teaching students how to convince employers

Illustration by Keith Negley

Nanette Hanks was leading a group of University of Minnesota undergraduate students on a three-week hiking trip through Spain’s Camino de Santiago in 2014 when she noticed a difference in the way they described the experience. 

While humanities students talked about the trip being “awesome,” those studying business explained how it broadened their world view, taught them to manage their time, and helped them appreciate differences in cultures—things they could highlight on a resume or call out during a job interview. 

“I realized they could talk about it in terms of how they present themselves or set themselves apart,” says Hanks, assistant dean for curriculum in the U’s College of Liberal Arts (CLA). “I also realized I needed to do some work with my own students so they can better talk about their experience.”

Communication studies major with a minor in Asian American studies 
Internship: Education policy intern with the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C.
Importance of the Barbara Newsome Liberal Arts Internship Scholarship: “D.C. is so expensive and I was doing nonprofit work. Without the scholarship, I would not have been able to have this experience.”
Courtesy of Tigana Van Le

Hanks’ observation happened at a time when the liberal arts were coming under fire. Stories about students graduating with a degree in French literature, a large sum of debt, and no clear career path were making headlines. Lawmakers in some states, including Minnesota, were considering whether to provide more support to students studying science, technology, engineering, and math than those in the liberal arts. U of M communication studies professor Ascan Koerner often found himself having to explain to skeptical parents of prospective students where a degree in his field could lead. “It’s clearly on the mind of folks,” he says.

It was also on the mind of Dean John Coleman, who put out a call for action in the fall of 2014 to make the U’s CLA alumni the most desirable of graduates. One way to do that: help undergraduate students develop the skills and abilities employers want.

What is “career readiness”?

The following year, Koerner was tapped to become faculty director for a new career readiness initiative. But what “readiness” meant wasn’t clear. 

“We started out thinking it might be relevant skills, the idea being to identify particular groups of classes where people might pick up quantitative reasoning skills if they want to go into something analytical or communication skills if they want to go into something communication related,” he says. 

But after asking alumni what was most useful about their education and talking to employers about the skills their most successful employees possessed, Koerner realized CLA needed to instead focus on problem-solving, critical thinking, and other “competencies.” “Those really are inherent to the liberal arts,” he says. 

Koerner and his team rethought their strategy and chose to focus on abilities CLA students can cultivate and draw on throughout their careers.


The College of Liberal Arts is helping undergraduate students become proficient in: 

• Analytical and critical thinking

• Applied problem-solving

• Ethical reasoning and decision-making

• Digital literacy

• Innovation and creativity

• Career management

• Teamwork and leadership

• Oral and written communication

• Engaging diversity

• Active citizenship and community engagement

“What we historically have not been good at is articulating to our students what it is they’re learning and how it’s useful and practical after graduation,” he says. That means teaching them to speak about their studies in a way that’s meaningful to employers. “We had never challenged them to make those connections.”

But would faculty buy into the idea of incorporating any discussion of career into class? “Faculty can be very skeptical,” Koerner says. So he spent 2016-17 giving presentations, holding workshops, and encouraging teaching staff to become “faculty fellows” who could help their peers incorporate 10 core career-related competencies into their curriculum. 

He says he’s recruited an initial cohort of 24 fellows and changed some minds along the way. “There is a strong sense among faculty that they have an obligation toward their students,” he says.

In addition, Koerner and Hanks are now talking to other colleges within the University and beyond about the initiative.

Theater arts major with a focus on stage management and sound design; minoring in Spanish
: Assistant stage manager, Children’s Theatre Company, Minneapolis
Importance of the Mulhollem Cravens Leadership Scholarship: “Most theaters are nonprofit, and they can’t pay interns. I normally work as a tour guide on campus, but wasn’t able to because I was in rehearsal almost 10 hours a day Monday through Friday. The scholarship really saved my summer.”
Courtesy of Isabel Patt

Outside the classroom 

One of the best ways to prepare for any career is through hands-on experience, which students get through internships, studying abroad, or participating in leadership programs. Donors fund a number of scholarships within CLA that allow students to take advantage of these opportunities, including two new ones: The Mulhollem Cravens Leadership Scholarship and the Barbara Newsome Liberal Arts Internship Scholarship. Since 2015, these two scholarships together have helped 61 students. 

Tigana Van Le, ’18, a communication studies major, is one. As a Newsome Scholar, he spent 10 weeks as an education policy intern for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C., this past summer. Le analyzed the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 higher education budget and its implications for the Southeast Asian community and met with senators, representatives, and staff on Capitol Hill.  

The experience, which he calls “life changing,” not only showed the value of what he was learning in class, but also clarified his plans for a career that blends public policy and higher education. “It was a humbling experience to see how what I’ve been studying had merit, especially when you’re talking to politicians,” he says.

Isabel Patt, ’18, a Mulhollem Cravens Leadership Scholar and theater arts major, interned as an assistant stage manager with the Children’s Theatre Company in Minneapolis. 

She says the organizational, time management, teamwork, and leadership abilities she’s cultivated as a liberal arts student were invaluable. “Stage management is incredibly collaborative,” she says. “You have to be very flexible and open in order to hear everyone’s requests and synthesize all the information you gather so decisions can be made.” 

Patt, who plans to freelance as a stage manager and sound designer after graduating, says being exposed to a broad variety of topics in her classes gave her a desire to work on productions that are relevant to current events and the struggles of people around the world. “CLA inspired me to always be curious,” she says. “I love having that freedom.”

Kim Kiser is editor of Legacy magazine.