(The above essay also appears on LinkedIn Pulse.)
As a college student, I was both honored and completely overwhelmed to attend the University of Virginia. I arrived at Mr. Jefferson’s University as a proud graduate of Jefferson County (Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia. Less than a third of my graduating high school class went on to any form of postsecondary education. Only a handful of us left the state for college.
When I arrived at UVA, I was utterly lost. I quickly learned that there were more students in my first-year class from Sri Lanka than there was from my home state of West Virginia. I would hear countless students talk about how they were from “Nova,” and had no idea where that city was and how it sent so many kids to UVA (I later learned it was the shorthand for Northern Virginia, the wealthy, DC suburbs). And I was too introverted and too unsure to ask the sorts of questions or find the sort of guidance that would make my transition to college what it really should have been.
Last week, I had the opportunity to visit my alma mater and speak with a collection of a wide range of student groups, including the Bolivar Network, designed to support Latinx students there. The visit forced me to reflect on some of those more painful times, while allowing me to celebrate those experiences in a way I hadn’t previously.
It’s always special to go back to one’s alma mater, and doubly so when you are asked to impart some wisdom. For me, though, it was even more exciting as I brought my 12-year-old son with me. He had never been to UVA before. And he had never before seen a gathering of smart young people on the path to success who, as fellow Latinos, looked just like him. That’s why it was so, so important to me that he join me, beginning to see what his future might be like.
As I looked across the room that evening, I saw a collection of faces sharing many of the same emotions I had more than a quarter century ago. I also saw a group of amazing young people who needed to hear truth, learner to learner.
I never turn down the opportunity to talk to students about their futures and about the opportunities ahead. Whether it be in formal events or in one-on-one conversations resulting from a LinkedIn message or a career office connection, I will always take the time to do what I can to help. I also know that most of the advice they get is boring. A lot of it just doesn’t relate. Too often, students just receive the trite responses adults think they should receive – study hard, plan your future, be careful what you put on social media, earn top dollar.
I learned long ago that that just isn’t me, and that was reflected at the University of Virginia last week. Over the course of two hours, I offered some advice today’s students often don’t hear. But there were three items in particular that seemed to resonate.
First, don’t obsess over grades. Grades mattered when it was time to apply for college. Now is the time to make the most out of college. For me, that meant investing all of my time and attention working for The Cavalier Daily, one of the nation’s top collegiate newspapers. By the end of college, I was the managing editor of a daily newspaper, overseeing 150 volunteer staff and a $500,000 annual operating budget. We published 16 pages of news five days a week. That experience – and the internships and writing that came with it – led to my early jobs. One has to make the most out the college experience, and that includes diving deep into experiences outside of the classroom. In the nearly 24 years since I graduated from college, I have never once been asked my GPA as I pursued a new job.
Second, life isn’t fair. The perfect job likely won’t be offered. The salary you think you deserve may not be available. A great professional opportunity may end up being a living hell, as you work for a bully of a boss. It’s not fair, but it is life. Remember, you can do anything for a year as you plan the next step. In the early stages of your career, you need to practice the mantra of “positive and flexible.” Find the positives in a not-so-great experience. Figure out what you can learn from even your worst mistakes. I can look back at a truly horrible work experience I once had and can say I would do it again because of what it taught me. I may approach it a little differently now, knowing what I know, but even if the experience wasn’t fair, it was important in shaping who I am, professionally, today.
Finally, you be you. True success in life comes from knowing who you are and where your interests and passions lie. One of the worst things you can do is head down a professional path because you think it is what is expected of you. As I was leaving college, I fully expected I’d go to law school because that was what most arts and sciences grads at UVA seemed to do. Fortunately, the summer between college and law school taught me that I could do what I loved without earning a law degree. My career highlights have been the result of following my true passions. My career lowlights have been the result of just chasing a paycheck or a job title. My work has to be about me and what drives me, not just about what I majored in.
As we were walking away from the student union, I asked my son what he thought of the evening. A quiet boy who usually doesn’t share much, he opened up by telling me, “that was awesome.” He then explained that no one had ever told him some of those things and that he had never thought about a lot of what he heard. We began talking about his own postsecondary education, and how he will be empowered with more choices and options than he could ever imagine. That is mom and I would be there to help guide him, but the decisions would ultimately be his. I could see he was both enthralled and overwhelmed, probably just the mix he should have as a seventh grader.
We talked mostly about him needing to be him, and how he needs to continue to learn where his interests and passions lie, and we will help him find pathways to pursue them. If I got the wheels in his head turning – as well as the wheels in many of the Latinx students I met with – then I am doing my job and acting on my own professional passions.
Recent headlines are clear. We received the 2016 election results we did because the Russians allegedly were able to dupe a significant number of American voters, particularly Bernie Sanders supporters and African-American voters, vote against Hillary. Whether forcing Green Party votes or keeping individuals away from polling places entirely, Russian intelligence spiked our 2016 vote.
Or it was the National Enquirer. By keeping salacious gossip – whether true or no – about the Republican candidate from the front pages of the tabloid, the publishers of the Enquirer handed the election to Trump. The supermarket rag single-handedly provided Donald Trump with his “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment.
Or maybe it was Facebook’s fault, for not properly regulating what its users put forward as “news sources.” Or Twitter for giving Trump a constant platform. Or social media in general for not providing a proper nanny state for telling the average voter what information they should have access to, what they shouldn’t, and what to believe.
Two years have passed since the 2016 elections, and we still want to believe that we got the outcome we got because someone, or someones, did something nefarious to us. The American people are just victims here, with election outcomes the majority of Americans dislike forced upon it by outside forces.
Instead of buying into these conspiracy theories, though, maybe we should be having a serious discussion about a very real problem. We should be voicing our frustrations not at the Russians or the tabloids, but instead at the general absence of an informed populace.
According to this year’s Annenberg Constitution Day Civics Survey, less than a third of Americans can correctly name the three branches of the Federal government. A majority don’t seem to understand how the Federal government actually operates.
A recent survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that only a third of Americans could pass the basic immigration exam. The majority of Americans didn’t know which states were part of the original 13 states, who the United States fought in World War II, or when the U.S. Constitution became the law of the land.
Where is our collective outrage about how little we actually know about American civics and history? Where is our growing frustration with a populace uneducated about what government can and has done to address the most pressing issues of our age?
It is heartening to see a majority of states advocating for improved civics education, looking to equip students with a better understanding of how government works, offering them the facts necessary to improve our performance on the annual Constitution Day survey. It is a start.
But it is a far cry from what should be our goal. It’s terrific for the average American to learn – and retain – enough facts and figures to answer survey questions correctly or to outperform peers at a trivia night at the local tavern. Yes, we need to know names and dates. We also need to understand what has happened in our nation’s history, why it happened, and why it is significant. We need to make history relevant for all Americans. Relevant to learn. Relevant to retain. Relevant to apply.
It’s easy to blame social media campaigns or the tabloids for election outcomes. It is far more valuable to understand yellow journalism and how media was used to advance McCarthyism.
It’s easy to accuse politicians of voter suppression. It is far more valuable to understand the Jim Crow era and the fight for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
It’s easy to attack the Electoral College for being antiquated. It is far more valuable to understand why we have it and how it has been used and abused in past elections.
When tens of millions of Americans begin to think like historians – knowing our history, understanding why things happened, and appreciating how those lessons of the past can be applied to the realities of today or the promise of tomorrow – we are a better country. Instead of just casting votes, we cast educated votes. We make decisions at the ballot box with a better understanding of how that single action can – and has – impacted our nation for decades to come.
Equally important, a better educated populace greatly reduces the strength of those outside forces we are growing to fear. With a firmer understanding of history, we don’t need social media clickbait to help us make election decisions. We instead cast our votes based on knowledge, facts, and a keener understanding of our history.
A better knowledge of American history can be a powerful thing. And it may just be the most valuable tool for improving elections … and election outcomes.
Last month, the Trump Administration unveiled a proposal to merge the US Departments of Education and Labor, all in the name of efficiency and a better connection between school and career.
The immediate opposition to the idea from the education community was to be expected. But is such a plan really such a bad idea? Over at the BAM! Radio Network, we explore the question and identify some of the potential benefits.
Give it a listen.
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.
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.
Earlier this week, President Donald Trump spotlighted the importance of apprenticeships in our educational tapestry. This may be the first major education policy move of this Administration, and the man who made The Apprentice a success may know a thing or two about the topic.
In focusing on apprenticeships, though, it is essential we focus the discussion on the career paths of tomorrow, not of yesteryear. We explore this topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. I hope you’ll give it a listen.