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Curriculum to Career
Internships have served as an educational tool for many years. What’s different about them now? In a culture of increasing fragmentation, how do we capture students’ attention and imagination so that they can facilitate their own deep learning? How can liberal arts colleges build internal institutional collaboration to provide students with an interconnected lens for viewing their academic, professional, and personal experiences? While internships may have been deemed effective in and of themselves in the past, internships embedded within a curricular pathway that facilitates students’ integration of academic knowledge and professional knowledge are what is called for today.
Modeling Collaboration across Campus
Like all liberal arts colleges, Mount Holyoke views the liberal arts as the best preparation for sustained career and life success. We seek to develop students’ general knowledge and intellectual capabilities before specialization. We believe students do not benefit as much from mastering vast quantities of content as they do from learning how to synthesize and contextualize that knowledge. Given the contingency of knowledge and skills in a rapidly changing world, we want students to practice integrative thinking within and across disciplines. If we want to enable students to make intellectual connections, we should model that by collaboration across campus, across disciplines and departments, and even beyond the curricular and the cocurricular.
To further these goals and Mount Holyoke College’s long history of experiential education, a new interdisciplinary experiential minor called Nexus: Curriculum to Career was launched in 2009 with support from the Mellon Foundation. This article will describe the process of developing this minor—the unique collaboration, as well as its opportunities and challenges.
Mount Holyoke’s Nexus minor provides a sequence of coursework, experiential learning and critical reflection (see fig. 1). Nexus students participate in one of seven interdisciplinary tracks, which reflect likely career choices (Art and Society; Education and Society; Global Business; Journalism, Media, and Public Discourse; Law and Public Policy; Nonprofit Organizations; and Sustainable Development). Students take two introductory academic courses relevant to the track theme and a preexperience course; they then elect an experiential component, such as an internship, research project, or summer employment. Upon their return, students take a postexperience course to integrate their professional experience into their academic pathway. Students give a public presentation at a campuswide symposium, and then conclude with an advanced academic course.
Figure 1. Nexus structure—Sixteen-credit academic minor
The flexibility built into the Nexus structure serves students well. Through intentional preparation and reflection at the personal, academic, and professional levels, students learn not only to develop but to identify and articulate transferable skills valued by graduate schools and employers. Nexus enables students to meaningfully link their liberal arts education with their career goals. For example, Lucy wants to be the media relations director for a museum such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She decides to pursue the Nexus minor in Journalism, Media, and Public Discourse and so begins her Nexus track with English 202—Introduction to Journalism, and Sociology 216—Intellectuals, Media, and the Public Sphere. Next she enrolls in Ready for the World, the internship preexperience course. In the summer she conducts research for the Media Education Foundation. Upon her return, she enrolls in Tying it all Together. To synthesize all that she has learned, she enrolls in English 301—Journalism History and Ethics. In another example, Nshunge wants to be an immigration lawyer. For the Law and Public Policy Nexus, she fashions her academic path by starting with Politics 247—International Law, and Sociology 230—Sociology of Immigration. After taking the preexperience course, she lands an internship with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition in Boston the following summer. When she completes the internship, she registers for the postexperience course. As her capstone course, she takes Politics 353—The Politics of Work.
Before we summarize the development of Nexus, let us briefly consider Mount Holyoke’s unique institutional profile and student population. Mount Holyoke College, located in a small town in western Massachusetts, is the oldest women’s college in the world. Considering our student body of 2,200, we have an unusual number of international students, students with high financial need, and first-generation college students. Students at Mount Holyoke are, therefore, confronted with financial and cultural barriers in accessing internship opportunities and have an increased need for financial support. Mount Holyoke continues to support the philosophy of its founder, Mary Lyon, who believed that a Mount Holyoke education should be available to any talented woman who could benefit from it.
Not only do we want to make a college education accessible to all students, but we also want to make opportunities, such as internships, which are proven to be high impact, accessible to all students. One way we try to meet financial need is through a centralized funding process administered by the Career Development Center. Students from all academic disciplines apply for merit-based internship or research fellowships issued annually from the college. Departments across campus collaborate and agree upon merit terms and student selection. Each year the college provides nearly $500,000 in funding to approximately two hundred students for internships or research projects. While the fellowships do not meet the totality of student demand, they provide access to critical internship and research opportunities.
Preparing Students for Internships
To return to the development of Nexus, we note that it was the eventual outcome of years of discussion among the faculty. In 2008, the dean of faculty invited a group of faculty to meet in a seminar to consider ways to better prepare students for internships and research projects. In a positive coincidence of timing, Mount Holyoke had recently received a curricular development grant from the Mellon Foundation to support this new faculty work. The deans of faculty and the college shepherded what emerged as the Nexus minor through the curricular process. At different points in the multiyear planning process, crucial contributions from all parts of the curriculum, the Career Development Center, the Community-Based Learning program, the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, the Miller Worley Center for the Environment, the Speaking Arguing and Writing (SAW) program, the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, and the deans ensured a sense of ownership across the curriculum.
In developing the two required pre- and postexperience courses, faculty and staff asked themselves: What knowledge and skills do students need before they embark on internships and research projects? How can we teach those skills to students going to dramatically different sites in the United States and abroad? The group proposed two courses, a preexperience course, Ready for the World: Preparing for Your Internship and Research Project, and a postexperience course, Tying it all Together: Curriculum to Career. These courses provide multiple opportunities for critical reflection, linking the coursework to the experience and integrating theory and practice, all the while keeping an eye on long-term career goals.
The pre- and postexperience courses are structured around common topics relevant to all disciplines, project types and locations. Some topics in the preexperience course include successful research and interview methodologies, class and power dynamics both within and between organizations, and ethical considerations in the workplace. The postexperience course focuses on presenting one’s experience and making intellectual connections among different contexts. What seems to be emerging as the great strength of these two courses is that faculty and staff from various academic departments, the Career Development Center, the SAW Center, and the academic centers have all contributed to the design and teaching of the courses. Students agree that the course enriches their internship and research experiences (see fig. 2).
Figure 2. Students comment on ”Ready for the World” course
The culture of collaboration at Mount Holyoke enabled us to address another need: student presentation skills. A fall symposium provides students returning from summer internship and research projects with an opportunity to reflect critically on how their learning experiences outside the classroom connect to their coursework at Mount Holyoke, and how they have shaped their academic, professional, and personal goals. The symposium is open to all students at the college, and it is a requirement for Nexus students, who prepare for it as part of the Tying it All Together course.
Despite significant successes in the development of the Nexus minor, there are some challenges that still need to be addressed. Course designers wrestled with several problems: (1) how to make a course relevant to students pursuing dramatically different projects in a wide range of settings; and (2) how to provide reading assignments, essay questions, and reflective writing appropriate for such a heterogeneous set of experiences. We continue to struggle with issues of timing and sequence. The course is primarily effective if taken in the spring once students have summer internship or research project offers in hand. Unfortunately, many students do not receive offers until shortly before the summer begins, making it difficult for the students to fully conceptualize their upcoming experience and to make the course assignments applicable and specific to their upcoming project. For students who spend their junior year studying abroad, there will be an undue lag time between taking the preexperience course, doing the internship or research project, and taking the postexperience course.
Helping Students to Become Intentional about their Future Careers
Colleagues at other institutions often ask us how we developed faculty buy-in for Nexus. Initially, plenty of faculty resisted the idea of this program. Some worried that Nexus would compete with other interdisciplinary programs; others worried that our liberal arts mission would become too preprofessional. For multiple reasons, this initiative has worked nonetheless. First, Mount Holyoke enjoys a long history of internships and support to make internship opportunities accessible. Since the 1950s, Mount Holyoke faculty have identified internships for students and the college has provided some financial support for the opportunities. In recent years, the college has provided increasingly more financial support. Second, an existing interdisciplinary minor called Complex Organizations attempts to link the liberal arts with social and economic aspects of organizations, both for-profit and not-for-profit. Third, the concern about inadequate student preparation for work abroad persuaded faculty to support a more systematic preparation for students.
Nexus essentially arose from the faculty, and faculty concerns were focused and supported by the dean of faculty. As more faculty were brought in to develop specific tracks, skeptical faculty joined in the conversation and, in some cases, became supporters of the idea. While there are still skeptical faculty, principled opposition (primarily about fears of diluting our liberal arts mission) seems to be waning. Fourth, faculty are beginning to recognize how students returning from these summer experiences deepen discussions in their classrooms.
Our hope is that in the increasingly difficult economy of the twenty-first century, students and their families will understand that an investment in a liberal arts education provides the best possible chance for a successful career and future. Nexus is helping students to become intentional and proactive about their future careers, to recognize their progress toward career goals, and to understand the power of leveraging a liberal arts education.
Megan Pierson is the assistant director for Internships and Experiential Learning in the Career Development Center; Marie Troppe is the director of Nexus and 21st Century Scholars—both of Mount Holyoke College.