Requiring Internships at College

Earlier this month, Gallup published a fascinating piece on why college should make internships a requirement. Noting that Gallup data shows that parents, students, and the public believe the top reason for higher education is to get a good job, reflecting on the fact that only about a quarter of students (27 percent) had a good job waiting for them after earning a bachelor’s degree, and determining that almost another 25 percent had to wait at least six months (6 percent waiting seven to 12 months and 16 percent waiting at least a year) before finding said good job, Gallup’s authors could come to only one conclusion. Gallup’s Brandon Busteed and Zac Auter determined that internships were key for student success, and it was up to colleges and universities to ensure it.

More specifically, Busteen and Auter noted:

the truth is, higher education institutions and accreditors are out of sync with what the public and students want most from a college degree. And nothing will improve this more than this one step: Making an internship — where students can apply what they are learning in a real-world work situation — a requirement to graduate.

I’ll admit, dear ol’ Eduflack gets into more than his share of rhetorical skirmishes regarding the ultimate goals of higher education. I appreciate those that believe the purpose of college is to instill a greater sense of learning and an appreciation for thought in those that pursue it. I’ll even acknowledge the points so many make, that studying the classics or a dead language or something of that ilk can make one a better person and a better citizen.

But it is equally hard for me to wrap my hands around someone taking out $100k in student loans to be the most well-read barista at the local Starbucks. I can appreciate the value of the liberal arts, but don’t possess the rose-colored classes that come with it that require one to believe the pursuit of such liberal arts are the key to a happy and profitable life, one that ensures food on the table and a roof over the head of the family for decades to come.

Confession time. I am the product of a liberal arts education. I spent four years at Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville. I majored in two fields. The first was government (not even political science, but the foundations of American government, foreign affairs, and political theory). The second was rhetoric and communications studies, a degree no longer available at U.Va. I was part of the last graduating class with RCS majors, as the university abandoned our pursuits of Aristotle and Machiavelli and the foundations of rhetoric itself and replaced it with the more practical communications that can be found at any university, where one can study TV 101.

I learned an incredible amount in both my majors, particularly in RCS. One of the first floor speeches I ever wrote for a member of the U.S. Senate was tracking the history of Independence Day here in the United States back to the early teachings of Aristotle. As delivered, the speech was more than an hour long. All because of liberal arts education from the University of Virginia.

But while I confess, I must also admit that I am not a fool. Even as I was graduating from U.Va., I was rarely asked what my college major was or even what my GPA might be. My experience at Mr. Jefferson’s University – and my perceived successes there – were shaped by two factors, factors that happened well outside the traditional arts and sciences classroom.

The first was the four years I spent at The Cavalier Daily, an independent student newspaper that provided no pay and no college credit for its journalists. As managing editor of The CD, I worked more than 100 hours a week supervising a volunteer staff of 150 and putting out a 16-page broadsheet newspaper five times a week. I was 21 years old. No college class prepared me for that experience, and no course could ever have captured all that was taught and learned.

The second was three summers of interning on Capitol Hill. A course during my first year in college led to a general legislative internship with my U.S. senator before my second year of college. I was bitten by the political bug during that month-long stint in DC. The following summer, I earned a three-month internship working in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s (WV) press office. I repeated the experience the summer before my final year of college. Those three summers then led to a job offer on Capitol Hill, an offer that let me shelve plans for law school for, oh, going on 23 years now.

These experiences taught me about writing and critical thinking and management. They helped me learn to multitask. They forced me to question authority and push myself way beyond any comfort zones. They turned me into the professional I am today, equipping me with all of the 21st century skills, social and emotional learning, and other such attributes we eagerly seek in the professional world today.

I wasn’t required to do any of these things. My college degree did not change because of them (though I may have attended a few more actual classes if I wasn’t spending so much time at the college paper all of those years). But had I not taken those internships or worked for a newspaper, I would never have had the skills and abilities necessary to pursue the career path I’m on today. No question about it.

We like to tell high school students that the best way to prepare them for postsecondary education is to have them take dual-enrollment courses while still in high school, demonstrating that they are capable of doing college-level work. We should be doing the same for college students. The only way to demonstrate they are capable of performing in the professional work is by having them experience it as interns.

There is nothing wrong with using the college years to study dead languages, obscure poets, or unproven political theories. But at some point, those studies have to be applied to the real world, where students can see how their postsecondary experiences can be applied to their post-college worlds. That happens in an internship, not in a college classroom.

 

College Degree … or Work Skills?

A decade ago, President Obama declared a nations, goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. This month, EdSec Betsy DeVos called for a renewed focus on career education and workforce training.

Now before we condemn DeVos for somehow being anti-education, we need to consider that she may indeed be correct. A liberal arts education may have value for the soul, but it can be just as important to some to pursue an education that guarantees one can support a family and pay the mortgage.

We explore the topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen.

What I Learned While Lecturing At College

There is something rejuvenating about speaking on college campuses, particularly when it offers the opportunity to reflect on your profession and your career choices. In our day-to-day world, we can often lose sight of why we do what we do, letting the frustrations of the day get in the way of the successes of the career.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with students at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri about strategic communications. Heading in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve spoken at public and private universities. I’ve presented at Ivy League institutions and community colleges. At HBCUs and foreign universities. Each one is different, each comes with its own set of questions and its own frames of discussion.

Over the years, I’ve learned I’m an effective storyteller. Anyone in the communications profession can go onto a college campus and describe what their job is like. Speakers can approach such scenarios as if they are going in for a first round job interview or talking to someone at a cocktail party that they will never see again. They can provide a “just the facts” approach, as if they are describing the work to a crime scene investigator. Me, I prefer to tell old war stories.

It’s easy to get someone’s attention when you are able to talk about defending bomb-detecting dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy or flacking for a company that allegedly employed paramilitary death squads or managing an “angel of death” scenario at a local hospital or doing rhetorical battle with a brand name like Bill O’Reilly. Such tales make a communications job seem glamorous, taking away from those countless days and years in a cubicle cold-calling reporters and begging them to attend an event or review a release or the reams of paper and the countless drafts before a commentary meets the approval of the cast of thousands who may need to OK it.

Such stories, though, can often be the easy way out. It is one-way communication, with the storyteller (me) simply informing my audience. Even when one opens it up for questions, those answers are often simply more stories, or the expansion of the existing ones.

But in my discussion at Southwest Baptist University, I found a different discussion. Yes, the tales were entertaining (at least I thought so, but I’ve heard them all before). But the questions asked of me were illuminating. I was forced to go into my personal recesses and find answers to questions I haven’t asked myself in a long time. And in a few instances, explore some topics I have never consciously explored as a communications professional.

These were questions like:

  • What are the similarities in working in communications in fields like politics, government, healthcare, education? What are the differences?
  • Compare working in the private sector with working in the public sector? Working for for-profits versus not-for-profits? Which is better for a young professional? Why?
  • Is it better to be a communications generalist today or to specialize in a specific skill, like social media?
  • How does one measure the success, or failure, of communications initiatives? How do you know when you are doing it right?
  • How do you find the voice of your boss or your client?
  • I found that last question of particular interest and intrigue. I’ve been fortunate to be an on-the-record spokesman for more than two decades. I’ve also ghost written hundreds of commentaries for individuals over that time. In all of those years, I’m not sure I had ever thought about HOW to find that voice, I just did it.

When I worked for Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, I got there by watching his floor speeches and trying to parrot them. With Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, it was by reading his basketball memoir, Life on the Run. With the African-American national not-for-profit leader, it was from speaking one-on-one with him. With the former college president, it was from watching him speak to small groups. While each experience was different, each also shared a common thread. It was about finding voice in the setting where the speaker was most comfortable, most him or herself.

These were the sorts of questions that my 22-year-old self would never have known to ask. Heck, these are questions that my 30-year-old self wouldn’t have asked either. But these students were not just hearing the stories, but they were listening to them. And they were trying to distill these tales into useable lessons that would help them secure the jobs they sought and enter the careers they dreamed of.

At the same time, they reminded me of why I do what I do, what drew me to it, and what brings me the joy that keeps me from chucking it all and opening that cupcake shop on Grand Cayman. In teaching last week, I learned – or re-learned – a great deal.

(The above was also published in LinkedIn Pulse.)

How Protected Should Our College Students Be?

As it was preparing for the Charlottesville showdown, Eduflack’s alma mater, the University of Virginia, urged its students to remain in their dorms and not join in the protests against the nazis marching through town. 

While it is a college’s top responsibility to keep its students safe, is this really the message an elite university should be sending? Shouldn’t dear ol’ U.Va. be teaching its students to speak out and speak up instead?

This is the topic we explore on the latest episode of TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen. Give it a shout out!

Can You Teach a Superpower?

Last week, dear ol’ Eduflack wrote about the incredible learning experiences the Edu-family is getting from kickboxing. so this week, I’d like to turn the rostrum over to one of my Tiger Schulmann sisters, Amy Vondrak. 

Dr. Vondrak is a professor of English, an instigator of Utopia, and a TSMMA Yellow Belt (which means she outranks me and has physically kicked my butt on the mat.) Dr. Vondrak has captured a powerful perspective to the experience that just has to be shared whole cloth. So here goes …

 

A few nights ago at Tiger Schulmann’s Princeton, Sensei gave the advanced kickboxing class a scolding. About half the class had been late, which earned us quite a dressing down. The core message of his admonishment was the importance of self-discipline. In fact, the core of almost every one of Sensei’s talks is self-discipline. Now, even though (as he has often told us), “Sensei” means “born before,” I often feel just a bit odd about being the recipient of the wisdom of a man 20 years my junior. But actually, Sensei is right about a lot of things, and discipline is one of them.

During his scolding, I thought about my students, as I often do at martial arts. I’ve taught developmental composition at a community college for 13 years. Sensei teaches martial arts much like I teach writing: he takes complex series of moves and “scaffolds” them, taking them a step at a time. Learning a double-leg take down to side mount to triangle choke takes weeks as we work through each of the component parts of each move. And Sensei often tells us that if we don’t show up to class, on time and consistently, we are not likely to get any better at martial arts. I tell my students the same thing, but most of the time, they don’t listen.

I love my students. They have big dreams and so much potential. By and large, they are smart people who have been failed by an archaic educational system. But much of that potential gets lost because of the one thing they don’t have: self-discipline. They face huge challenges in life. They have jobs and kids and no money and crazy lives, so there are plenty of good reasons why it’s not so easy for them to get their work done and their butts in class. I’m not saying my students are lazy. Self-discipline is not a character trait, it’s a skill, one that they lack just as they lack writing skills. So they fail. Those of you who follow higher ed know that college students fail in great numbers. Then they feel even less able to take their place in the world, they feel even less powerful than they did when they walked into my class. That is not my mission as a teacher. My job is to show them their strength.

Along with Eduflack, I fought in the 42nd Challenge of Champions. I chose to fight up a division, literally fighting above my belt, and spent the late winter and spring trying to get mentally and physically prepared. The physical part was easier than the mental. It’s easier to face burpees than fears. But I did it: I got on the mat and I fought, as did many of my TSMMA Princeton teammates. Now, I’ve been going to the CoC as either a parent or spouse of a competitor for years, and this was my second time competing. Our family is very familiar with the emotional intensity of that day. But for some reason, this CoC showed me something I had not fully seen before: the way in which fighting lets us win our life battles. Of course, I know that martial arts is way more than a workout. Of course I’d been vaguely aware that for all of us on the mat, it’s not just about getting in shape. But this CoC gave me a glimpse into just how much we are fighting our demons, and winning. We may not be superheroes, but fighting makes us feel like when life starts shooting, we’ve got metal bracelets, a cool shield, and some amazing powers. In reality, our amazing superpower is self-discipline.

It is not easy to drag your tired self out to kickboxing on a Thursday night knowing that someone better than you is likely going to punch you in the face – sure, they’ll do it with respect and camraderie, but whatever, they’re still punching you in the face. And at the end of a few rounds of that, those burpees are waiting. But we do it. Again, and again, and again. Why? Discipline. And that discipline gives us tremendous power. We are less afraid of our demons and we are more powerful in our fight against them because our spines are stiffened with strong discipline. Bring it on bad guys, we got this.

My focus as a teacher has long been on content: how to read and write. Of course, I’ve tried for a long time to figure out how to teach grit, or growth mindset, or whatever trendy term is hot this week. But as many of the critics of those buzzwords will say, how do you teach grit? “Grit” always seems to be found in heroic stories of grand characters who beat enormous odds. In contrast, self-discipline is small and boring. Self-discipline is the accumulation of many daily acts, most of which may seem unimportant in the individual, but are massively important in the aggregate. But self-discipline is a skill which can be taught, which can be broken down into its component parts and taught a step at a time with lots of practice. So this summer I am cooking up a semester-long self-discipline project to roll out in the fall.

As a community college teacher, I’m not just trying to help students become better writers. Community college can be transformative, and it’s my job to help students feel empowered to change their lives. What I saw at the CoC was ordinary people fighting their demons with daily discipline, winning, and growing stronger because of it. This is what I want to share with my students as well – be disciplined, not just for your grade, but because your discipline will make you stronger than the world that tries every day to cut you down. Do your work. Fight for your grades. Fight for your degree. Because your fight, your discipline, gives you superpowers.


Dr. Amy Vondrak (r) with Megan Barndt.

Can We Check Our Impulse to Condemn?

It should come as no surprise, but we aren’t the most open-minded, slow-to-judgment crowd in education policy. We haven’t been for generations, and we certainly aren’t now. And that’s a crying shame.

The embodiment of this in 2017 is the Pavlovian response by many to condemn everything and anything that may be proposed by EdSec Betsy DeVos almost as quickly as she unveils it. While dear ol’ Eduflack gets that there may be a great deal of policy disagreements in the coming years, are we really willing to say there isn’t a single issue where there may be some common ground for a discussion? Is there not a single idea that may be put forward that is at least worth a productive discussion?

We examine this topic on this week’s #TrumpED program on the BAM! Radio Network. My hope is that we can soon all just take a collective breath and actually consider before condemning. But the realist in me realizing my hopes are often unfulfilled.

Regardless, give it a listen.