The Undergraduate Experience: Job Training or Personal Development?

Lisa (Moorman) Quattrini ’06 graduated from Texas A&M with a bachelor’s of business administration in marketing and a master’s in international affairs. She updated this reflection written several years ago for Texas A&M University Honors Program’s first contribution to the second-annual National Honors Blog Week. The theme for this synchroblog is “Things You Can’t Learn in a Classroom.” To read other contributions to this effort, visit the hub hosted at http://www.honorslounge.com/taxonomy/term/3287.

2014 National Honors Blog Week

 By Lisa Quattrini –

Administrators, donors and elected officials all seem to agree that we should be treating the university more like a business with efficiency being the end goal. As I understand it, the idea is to pare down colleges which do not “produce” enough while bolstering colleges which provide revenue through private sector investment, federal grants, and other funding streams.

In theory, the idea sounds good, at least from one perspective: cut out those arms of the institution which do not generate money, and funnel investment toward those arms which do. I think in a lot of ways, we as students and former students accept this efficiency-based methodology without really considering the role a university plays in society.

To me, though, the question is: should we be treating a university like a business? Should the university simply be a place where money goes in, graduates and revenue-generating research goes out? Or should a university be a center of innovation and creativity, and a tool to secure our society’s place among the great thinkers and inventors?

The first approach seems to be the approach that prevails among administrators and elected officials. My fear with this approach is that treating a university as a factory for producing four year degrees, while treating university research as a tool for revenue generation, is performing a serious disservice to the students and to the creative future of our society.

I have learned this lesson the hard way, having treated my own university experience as merely a necessary step between graduating high school and getting a good paying job in the workforce. Rather than challenging my intellect and following the subjects I found interesting, I followed the four-year plan that came as part of my welcome packet to my college. I knew that I was going to be bored, but I thought getting a job upon graduation was the only metric for a successful college career, and I trusted my selected degree plan to get me there.

After graduate school, I got a job in international research, and quickly found that my undergraduate degree in something “practical for getting a job” had stunted my ability to think creatively. My writing skills had suffered tremendously in undergrad. And while the technical skills I had begun to acquire in graduate school were good, they were not enough to prepare me for the rigors of my job, as the degree was not targeted towards research as a destination career.

Now I sit, eight years out of undergrad, six years out of grad school, and I am completely confused as to where I “should” fit in. I never stopped to question whether I was missing something along the way – I thought my extracurricular activities were enough, so I never sought a degree plan that thrilled me.

As a student, it’s hard to know what to plan for. What I’ve learned from my experience is that I missed out on a very vital opportunity for intellectual development at the undergraduate level. I made all of my curriculum decisions based on getting a job. In doing so, I missed a vital opportunity to get to know myself, and what I want out of life.

I think that the place of an academic institution, especially at the undergraduate level, is to give young people a platform to be creative, to think through problems in new ways, and to force students to examine the world from different perspectives. I know it seems sentimental, but when you understand how the greater picture is connected, I have to believe the end result is better, simply because you understand what you’re working with and where it should go.

Treating a university like a factory where cost-cutting rules and no value is given to creative thought is likely to churn out workers who are interested in maintaining the status quo. A public university is specifically intended to expand the public knowledge, and it does no one any good to follow the same paths which have been traveled before you.

I leave you now with two challenges: one to the students, and one to administrators and elected officials.

To the students: it is my hope that you will not fall victim to the fear that you won’t have a job when you graduate. Treat your studies with respect – this is the only four (or five, or six) years you will ever be given to make mistakes, to learn, and to plan your future as you want it. Focus your degree plan on your passion: find something you love, and see as many sides of it as you can.

To the administrators and elected officials: don’t turn our campus into a factory of workers who simply toe the line and maintain the status quo. Help Texas A&M maintain and grow its reputation as a top-tier university which graduates innovators and thinkers. Help us promote a sentiment of wonder and exploration among the student population. I promise you’ll have more successful graduates if you do.

 

 

 

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