About Ryan LaHurd
Posts by Ryan LaHurd:
I wish I could have known James S. Kemper, the founder of the James S. Kemper Foundation. I admire many things about his personal attitudes and philosophy, especially his commitment to and valorization of lifelong learning. He himself referred often to the influence of Benjamin Franklin on his belief in the need for continuous learning and its role in the achieving what is best in human nature.
In his honor, I pass on the following quotation from The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning by neuroscientist Daniel Bor:
“Humans are unusual in the animal kingdom in that although we are born fully formed, with all the parts where they should be, we are helpless for many months—normally having to wait for over a year before we can even walk. Part of the reason for this is somewhat trivial: If we were born with our brains properly developed, we would have to be born with much larger heads, and our mothers would require pelvises so large they would hardly be able to walk. Another reason, though, goes to the heart of what it means to be human. In this seesaw between fast, brittle, uncomplicated instincts and slower, flexible, potentially complex plans, humans definitely weigh heavily on the side of the latter. We begin life embarrassingly ignorant and incapable, but have an enormous capacity to learn and optimize any motor skill and any representation of the world—and that’s exactly what we spend our lives doing.”
We are proud that Kemper Scholar senior Charles Ramsey was singled out for recognition at Wake Forest Univeristy. At the university’s special website InsideOutWake.com, Charles and four other students are featured. And their faces grace a giant mural on campus!
The website explains “We have carefully chosen five upperclassmen that represent different niches on campus, as well as cultural and ethnic backgrounds. We feel these students embody the well rounded Wake Forest community and through them, we want to exhibit the Pro Humanitate ideals. Their faces are currently displayed on the Lower Quad in a 70′ x 10′ print as an artistic expression of the Wake Forest experience.”
Check out the website and the profile of Charles here.
Despite the barrage of media attention to the issue, I have not yet come anywhere near being convinced that the main purpose of getting an education is to secure a job. From my own experience as a student and from a career of being involved with college students, I know that education is primarily about personal growth and development.
That said, I am also convinced that gaining meaningful and productive employment ranks a close second as a goal of becoming educated. Sigmund Freud was wrong about many things, but I think he was correct in observing that two things give meaning and purpose to life: love and work.
The mission of the James S. Kemper Foundation focuses on assisting students to complement their liberal arts education with hands-on experience in the world of work. For about 65 years the Foundation, through its Kemper Scholars Program and grants, has operated with the belief that enabling students to work in professional positions with mentoring will educate them about the workplace application of the skills they have been developing on campus and about ways to be an effective, ethical professional.
It feels good to have evidence that employers share our values and our philosophy.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, the trade paper of college and university professionals, reported in its March 8, 2013 issue on a survey conducted by The Chronicle and American Public Media’s Marketplace. The study concluded, “Employers want new graduates to have real-world experience. Internships and work during college matter most. . . .”
While that part of the conclusion may not be surprising, the other part is. It runs counter to what students think (as established by a parallel survey) and contrary to what they often told by others: “Employers said that each of those [internships and work] was about four times as important as college reputation, which they rated as least important. Relevance of coursework and grade-point average rounded out the bottom of the list.”
This study has many implications, but one that supports one of my favorite hobby-horses is that students should exchange their choice of seeking multiple majors and minors for opportunities to get internships and work experience.
Kemper Scholar Ibrahim Al-Hajiby of Augsburg College in Minneapolis played a major support role in this year’s annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum at the college. He had the opportunity to spend time in close contact with Nobel Peace Prize laureates and acted as translator for his country-woman, laureate Tawakkol Karman. You can read about Ibrahim’s experience in an article in the Minneapolis StarTribune by clicking here.
Each week my Chicago church sends out an e-newsletter with reflections on spiritual matters and information about upcoming events. This week’s reflection by my pastor, Craig Mueller, contained some ideas I thought relevant to college students preparing to go into the professional world. The following three paragraphs contain his thoughts. If you would like to read his full reflection, you can find it by clicking here.
“Earlier this week I heard a story on NPR on maps. Simon Garfield, a map expert noted that it’s easier these days to use GPS on a smart phone than it is to look at an actual map.
“Garfield regretted that one of the losses is that we lose the beauty and romance of maps. But his concluding comments had a spiritual ring to me: ‘The other thing we lose, is a sense of how big the world is. Because now we look at our map, there’s a real sense of, ‘Get me to where I want to go.’ Now you get the feeling, actually, ‘It’s all about me’ … It’s a terribly egocentric way of looking at the world. So I think the view of where we are in the world, in the history of the world, is changing. And I think in a way it’s one of the biggest, if not the biggest impacts of the digital and technological revolution – is how we see ourselves in the world.’
“As 2013 begins, it is good to reflect on the way we see ourselves in the world. Most of the time we are apt to reflect on our own financial situation, health, emotional landscape, and to-do list. Everything depends on how we are doing as an individual. It is a bit like looking on a Google map and seeing the dot in the middle showing where you are. Everything revolves around you.”
Here is why I thought these ideas are relevant to college students.
Whenever I get a chance to speak with executives or with people who do hiring, I ask them what they most look for in new employees. My goal of course is to get information to funnel to the Kemper Scholars I work with, giving them insights into how to further their professional careers.
Recently the answers to the question have had a consistency around two points: they want people who can communicate clearly, interestingly, and correctly (“Not at all a given with today’s college grads,” one executive told me.); and they want people who can work as part of a team.
As a former English professor, I have thought and written a great deal about communication skills – including in this blog, so I will spare you more. And the desire for employees who can work as part of a team is nothing new either. As I asked them to clarify, however, I heard some new things.
One executive compared her difficult search for team players with the paralysis in American legislative bodies. “People see themselves and their positions as the center of things. They demand that others adapt to them and not vice versa,” she told me. Sounds remarkably like Simon Garfield’s and Craig Mueller’s words above, right?
When I asked whether employers therefore prefer graduates who have been part of sports teams, the answer I got was “Maybe in the past. But now athletes are as likely to be grandstanders and hotshots as team players.”
Since most of American academia does not create situations where students must complete course assignments as part of a group, I suggest undergraduates would be wise to find teamwork opportunities on their own. These are most likely to occur in internships, jobs, and extra-curricular organizations. Volunteer at an organization like Habitat for Humanity where everything is done in work teams. Learn how to operate as part of a group without being the leader. And when you do these things, take time to reflect on how people work best as groups and how setting aside your personal goals can get larger ones accomplished.
In his article in the October, 2012 issue of INC., Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals, a Chicago-based software company, includes an observation by Theodore Levitt, legendary professor of marketing at the Harvard Business School:
“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”
Levitt was speaking about the misguided approach to advertising and marketing that emphasizes the features, characteristics, or specifications of a product. Marketers should be telling potential customers what a product can do, how it can meet their needs.
As I thought more about Levitt’s comment, it occurred to me that the same advice can be very helpful to job seekers. Potential employers do not want a description of the jobs you’ve had, a list of personality traits, or a rehash of your college curriculum.
Employers want someone who can do a job for them. Usually it is a very particular job which they have described in their ad or announcement. Your best approach in cover letter, résumé, and interview will be to tell with concrete details what you have accomplished and how these accomplishments match those skills the employer seeks.
“You say that you want someone who can X, Y and Z? I’ve X’d, Y’d and Z’d many times in many circumstances with these positive results. And here are the names of some people who can tell you about it.”
Of course, this assumes that you have had jobs, campus roles or internships where you have gained hands-on work experience. It is not too late!
The Baylor University Business Review in its Fall, 2012 issue contains a comment from Scott Smith, a Baylor alumnus and senior vice president of human resources operations at AT&T. “Our perfect candidate is one who has the underlying technology foundation along with key self-directed leadership abilities such as collaboration, creativity, critical-thinking, communication and customer service skills.” [You can see the whole issues by clicking here.]
I was happy to see Mr. Smith’s observation, because it validates something we have learned from the Kemper Scholars Program over its more than sixty-five years. The skills organizations want in their employees and future leaders are the skills honed in the course of completing a liberal arts college education.
Despite all the punditry about what is new and different and changing and developing in the workplace, someone like Mr. Smith who does the hiring for one of the country’s major corporations reminds us that the ideal employee skills they are looking for have not really changed.
So if liberal arts college and university students will possess the skills at graduation, what do they need to do to secure those jobs reserved for the “perfect candidate”?
First, they need to be sure that they select courses and campus experiences that are challenging and will help them test and hone these skills. Sign up for the logic course that will push your critical thinking skills. Even if it requires more work, take the course with the writing and speaking components that will give you opportunities to refine your communication skills. The best way to improve writing and speaking is to do them.
Second, they need to find non-classroom experiential opportunities in the workplace (jobs or internships) and extra-curricular leadership positions where they can test out and practice these skills. Things like collaboration, creativity, critical-thinking, and communication look different in the classroom than they do on the job. Having the chance to do them in this environment helps one to adapt these skills appropriately. For example, academic writing is communication, but not the style called for in the workplace.
Third, they need to reflect upon how the skills they learned on campus are playing out in the workplace and leadership positions. This practice will give them the confidence, the specific details and the vocabulary to show prospective employers in résumé, cover letters, and interviews that they in-deed have the skills employers seek in the perfect candidate.
More and more commonly, job applicants will be making their bids virtually through online applications or by email.
When you apply for a job by email, should you write a full-blown cover letter?
The hiring experts say, “Yes.” Though the form of delivery is different, the cover letter still serves its purpose of guiding the reader to see the connections between your resume and the desired characteristics mentioned in the job posting.
Highlight or expand upon those items in your résumé you think will show that you have the skills and traits the hirer seeks. Use the same vocabulary used in the job posting. If it said they want “creativity,” give evidence that you are creative and use that word. Remember that the reader may have scores, even hundreds, of applications to read; so you have to guide the reader to see what is most relevant.
Most first job applicants are in school or just graduated. You will be in the mode to write for professors in an academic style. Don’t. Be clear, concise, and pointed. Use straightforward Anglo-Saxon vocabulary when possible and use concrete, specific examples. If you majored in something like sociology or gender studies with a specialized vocabulary, do not use it unless you are applying for a job in that field and feel confident that your reader shares the same jargon.
Try to start out with a hook or punchy line that will grab your reader without being cute. You might begin with something like “Why would an education major think she is qualified to work in a bank?” Then go on to explain how you have developed the necessary skills and attitudes to fit in.
Attach a résumé to your email and note it after your signature, adding the program in which the résumé was prepared: “Attachment: résumé in MSWord 2007.” If you have the latest version of the software, it would be good to save the attachment in an earlier version so the recipient will be able to open it. To be extra safe, you can copy and paste the resume into the email after the letter in addition to attaching it.
If you use boilerplate copy and recombine sections for a new email, be sure there is nothing in the copied material that shows it was written for another application – for example, the name of a company. It is important to include specific references to the place you are applying, so in your boilerplate source document use colored highlighting to alert you to things you will need to change.
Finally, to avoid sending your email accidentally before you have proofread and edited it, do not fill in in the “To: line” until the very end.
Recently a number of periodicals have published articles reacting against a perceived push to define the value of education in terms of acquired job skills or salaries earned by graduates. Most commonly, the authors talk in terms of the need to develop lifelong “habits of mind.”
A piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on October 12, 2012 titled “Habits of Mind: Lessons for the Long Term” describes the argument this way: “the real value of a college education is how it affects the way students think and act, ideally for years after they graduate.” The intellectual virtues cited include critical thinking, open-mindedness, and intellectual courage.
Probably like most others whose lives and careers have been intimately connected with liberal arts education of the kind that happens in smaller colleges and universities, I find the argument resonant. If given a choice of skills to develop, the ones which will serve us longest deserve the most effort and resources, I would argue.
What we have learned from the Kemper Scholars Program, however, is that job skills and habits of mind are not at odds. Our experience shows that the two can come together comfortably in mentored experiential learning through professional internships. These kinds of experiences, in which students work in challenging internships accompanied by reflection, discussions, and mentoring, elucidate and concretize both professional work skills and habits of mind.
One of the most important things we have learned from the Kemper Scholars Program’s post-sophomore-year internships is the value of putting students in managerial areas of organizations rather than focusing on narrow skills related to their academic majors. In such positions they are likely to be called upon to use all their skills to deal with the complex issues that can arise on a daily basis. As a result, they know the value of all of these abilities and the reason to develop them.
We wish colleges and universities would make it possible for all students to have the same opportunities as Kemper Scholars!
I have a trivia question for you.
First the background: Chicagoan Lorraine Hansberry’s famous play A Raisin in the Sun was a huge success when published in 1959. It was the first play written by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry, aged 29, became the youngest American playwright and only the fifth woman to receive the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play.
Now the question: What is the source of the title of Hansberry’s famous play?
[I’ll wait while you consider]
The answer: The title comes from a poem by the Harlem Renaissance poet, social activist, novelist and playwright Langston Hughes titled “A Dream Deferred”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore– And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over– like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Hughes’s alliterative phrase “dream deferred” has a memorable quality. Out of the context of his poem, I think the phrase can be misinterpreted. I think it’s clear that Hughes is not talking about what psychologists call “delayed gratification,” the kind of impulse control that allows us to work our way through the steps necessary to get what we desire. Hughes refers, I think, to the fact that some people or groups – in his case, African Americans – can accomplish all the steps and still have their dream denied them because of systematic structures.
But this is all background to my point that, especially given the vicissitudes of the current economy, recent college graduates would do well to think in terms of “deferred career gratification.” Perhaps it has always been the case that college graduates expect to embark upon their dream job right out of school. But surely that kind of accomplishment has always been the exception. And it is probably less likely to occur now than in the recent past.
We are not betraying our career dreams if we take first steps that will eventually get us there. Many first – even second — jobs can equip us with the experiences and skills that will help us attain the dream job. The key, I think, is to have the goal in mind and to reflect on what we need to achieve in the steps along the way that will make our achievement of the dream more likely.
Seeing the first job as a step rather than a rut will put one that much closer to the top of the stairs. It’s not settling, it’s getting started.