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As a college and graduate school admissions consultant and career counselor, I work with young adults of all levels of motivation, many who amaze me with their talent, discipline and goal-orientation. Often, however, I find myself nudging clients along, usually at the request of their parents, hoping to breathe life into comfortable suburban twenty-somethings who are sadly lacking in passion and purpose.

I have frequently posted about the next generation’s need for meaning and purpose. Occasionally, I encounter a young person who seems to have found a rudder for the future.

Last night, I attended a reception for the children of family friends, a son graduating from Georgetown and a daughter finishing high school and headed for Elon. I had met their parents back in my corporate years. I had known the children since they were babies, but due to geographical moves had not seen them in recent years. The reception was held at the family’s close-knit African-American Baptist church in NJ, which had been a nurturing home base for them despite several relocations over the years.

Ross, a handsome, articulate and charismatic double major in philosophy and theology, spoke about his future, bringing many in the gathering (including myself) to tears. He talked about his extracurricular community service work with inner-city teens in Washington DC throughout his years of study at Georgetown.

Ross mentioned a special connection with a young man who wanted to drop out of high school, because none of his friends had lived to be twenty-one. With such a morbid perceived life expectancy, this disillusioned teenager did not want to spend his “last years” in school. After encountering such a heartbreaking situation, Ross decided to commit two years of his life to Teach for America.

Teach for America is a non-profit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders to teach for two or more years in low-income communities throughout the U.S. The organization was founded by Wendy Kopp after she developed the idea to help eliminate educational inequity in the U.S. for her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989–the year Ross was born.

Applying to Teach For America has become highly popular among seniors at America’s elite colleges. In its first year, TFA placed 500 teachers; in 2010, it received more than 46,000 applications resulting in 4,500 new corps members. These applicants included 20 percent of the senior class at Spelman, where Ross’s mom went to college; 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors; 7 percent of the graduating class at U Michigan-Ann Arbor; and 6 percent at UC-Berkeley.

Dismal job market news for 2011 graduates continue to fill the newspaper headlines, broadcast airwaves, and cyberspace. Recent examples: “Tight Job Market for Recent Grads” (UPI.com); “Class of 2011, Most Indebted Ever” (WSJ.com); “Jobs for College Grads Growing at a Snail’s Pace” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce).

Concerned parents are understandably encouraging their college students to pursue “practical” majors that will give them a good shot at employment. Their greatest fear is that after spending  (or borrowing) $200K for their kid’s education, he or she will have to move back in with Mom and Dad after college is over, with no job prospects. And their worst fears are oftentimes coming true.

Yet, here’s a young man who did not major in accounting or economics to hedge his bets. He followed his heart, studying philosophy and theology. He saw a desperate need in society, and took it upon himself to answer the call to meet that need. Pretty simple. And profound.

Many kids coming out of college these days do temporarily move back with Mom and Dad, to begin a job search, prepare for graduate school admissions tests, get a stop-gap job and save money, or try to otherwise find their way. And I understand that for many college grads, that is a necessary route to take. But it is also deceptively easy to waste several years in a state of suspended animation. Instead, what about changing the world?

I don’t know how much TFA teachers get paid, although I know graduate school partnerships offer benefits ranging from active recruitment of TFA alumni to tuition help. But most important, experiences like TFA change the person who joins forever, and change the young people that member influences.

Ross will be teaching 8th Graders in New Orleans. Can you imagine the impact this smart, centered, charismatic young teacher will have on disadvantaged teens, especially boys, who need a grounded role model?

I work with many college and graduate school applicants writing essays about how they want to improve society. I believe most are sincere. But very few applicants find a way, through their college majors, internships, entry level jobs, or long term career choices, to actually become agents of change. Most people, in the end, settle for survival and perpetuating the status quo. Once in a while, however, someone decides to really change the world.

Related reading: A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy KoppStart Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie (founder of Toms Shoes, available September 2011); Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide by Stacey Edgar. Great summer reading for college students to help them incorporate entrepreneurial social action into their evolving life purpose.

Related posts: Liberal Arts and the Real World; Finding a Job in a Tough Economy; So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship…What To Do?

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Lynn O’Shaughnessy, higher education journalist, author of The College Solution, and expert on all things college and financial at the College Solution Blog and CBS Money Watch, recently wrote a thought-provoking piece called “8 Reasons Not to Get A Business Degree.” I highly recommend Lynn’s post for college students wrestling with the daunting task of choosing a  major. I was intrigued to find that employers favor liberal arts majors because of their critical thinking, communications and teamwork skills.

That said, how can a liberal arts major prepare for a job in the real world?

1. Prepare for a career in the same content area as your major. This is the most direct, purist approach, not requiring that you think outside the box. It also requires great passion, superior talent to your peers, and perhaps a graduate degree in the field, since many content areas are highly competitive with few available positions.

Examples include: a music conservatory performance major seeking a job in a major symphony; an English major aspiring to earn a PhD and become a professor at an elite college; an archaeology major aiming to become the next Indiana Jones; an astrophysics major seeking to become an astronaut.

2. Translate your major into a more broadly saleable version of your content area. This approach keeps you  involved with the content area you love, with less risk about the prospects of making a living. There are more positions, so you don’t have to be a freak-of-nature prodigy with perfect luck to succeed. It requires thinking ahead and taking additional courses, choosing a specific concentration in the major, or a graduate degree.

Examples include: a music major who takes the music education track and gains teaching certification; a chemistry major who concentrates in food science to work in R&D for a food manufactuer; a criminal justice major who earns a law degree aspiring to become a district attorney.

3. Transfer the core skills required in your major to a more broadly salesable content area drawing upon the same fundamental competencies. Sometimes two content areas that appear very different on the surface actually have deep underlying similarities, in terms of the fundamental skills required and the thought patterns involved. This kind of transfer is really thinking outside the box!

This approach almost always requires additional undergraduate coursework, or a certificate or graduate degree that adds a brand new layer of content skills that is integrated with the original content area based on their inherent compatibility. This is the classic idea of the liberal arts college grad who gets an MBA, with a natural link between the undergraduate major and area of concentration chosen in graduate business school.

Examples include: a psychology major who transfers his capacity to understand human behavior and decision-making into a career in marketing; a mathematics major who transfers her analytical ability into a career in financial analysis, economic forecasting or intelligence cryptology; a theater major who transfers his ability to captivate an audience into a career in sales or public relations; an art history major who transfers her visual, conceptual orientation into a career in advertising.

A New Educational Fusion. In his thoughtful response to Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog, Daniel L. Everett, Dean of Arts & Sciences at Bentley University, a business-oriented school, discussed how undergraduate institutions are combining liberal arts foundations with business training. In my view, this is an encouraging direction. There are even schools where you don’t begin a BBA program until junior year, such as Emory University (Goizueta Business School). In the first two years, students satisfy liberal arts requirements, trying prerequisites like accounting to see if they possess a business skillset.

Educational fusion does not only apply to business. Many liberal arts colleges have 3-2 programs with engineering schools, to train engineers with a Renaissance educational foundation (imagine that!). In a recent US News & World Report article, Lynn O’Shaughnessy also reports on that educational development. I believe there are opportunities to combine liberal arts with many types of  “practical” training programs at the undergraduate level. The possibilities are endless…

What about a 3-2 culinary program, so an intellectual undergraduate could enjoy a world-class liberal arts foundation, and then gain professional training for another passion that is more directly related to employment? And become a true “Renaissance chef?” Brown University has teamed up with Rhode Island School of Design with a dual degree program for the truly sophisticated artist. Just to keep it all in Providence RI, how about Brown teaming up with Johnson & Wales’ College of Culinary Arts?

Don’t hold your breath on too many wild, creative partnerships like this between undergraduate institutions. It may be up to the student to create one’s own education through an undergraduate degree, certificate programs and graduate degrees. But it can be much more interesting than just majoring in business!

Relevant reading: Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career by Sheila J. Curran, From College to Career: Entry-Level Resumes for Any Major from Accounting to Zoology by Donald Asher, You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career by Katharine Brooks, Now What? The Young Person’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Career by Nicholas Lore.

Related posts: Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA, Your College’s Career Center, So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship… What To Do?, What Is Informational Interviewing? and College Internship and Entry Level Resumes. From my other blog: Why Study Liberal Arts in College?

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