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Fall Renewal

Dean Rob StraughanDean Rob Straughan

The return of students in the fall elicits mixed emotions. We feel the absence of those who have moved on even as we welcome the fresh and eager, first-year (FY) students.

A few weekends ago I met first with the parents and later with the FYs. They all have various ideas about what lies ahead. But as we know from experience, the person crossing the stage in May 2020 will hardly resemble the one that arrived earlier this month.

How they change, and why, depends on the risks they take. I encourage FY students to buck traditional wisdom. Avoid convention. Embrace change. Too many web sites, magazines, and other outlets commenting on higher education view the role of the University as a trade school of sorts. To quote that great philosopher Bill the Cat, “THBBFT!”

Those with a careerist perspective lose site of the fact that the job market changes. Many jobs and employers students may pursue upon graduation don’t even exist today. Those that do will undergo changes between now and then. Trying to outguess the future job market becomes a dicey proposition.

Just as the job market evolves, so do students. Graduating seniors often reflect on this maturation. It results from the intellectual risk-taking that my colleague Suzanne Keen encourages students to embrace. Those experiencing the most profound awakening have explored new subjects. They have studied and lived in another culture, often multiple times during their four years. And they sought co-curricular opportunities to complement classroom work, allowing them to “do” in addition to the many opportunities to discuss.

I remember the keynote address of Amy Bohutinsky (’97) at last spring’s AdLib conference (found here). Amy is Chief Operating Officer for Zillow Group. She graduated as a broadcast journalism major. She took a job as a TV reporter in Virginia, and later in Florida. Then, she took a leap of faith and jumped into the dot.com boom. A few years later she was at the epicenter of Zillow’s launch.

The opportunities that Amy took advantage of as her career evolved had less and less to do with the formal subjects she studied. They had more to do with who she had become—as a person, as an innovator, and as a problem solver. As she shared with me last spring, “Life is not a ladder, but rather a jungle gym.”

For members of the class of 2020 (and all other W&L students), keep the following in mind:

  • Look for every opportunity to add breadth to your studies. Integrate disparate subjects and modes of thought. Choose courses from a broad array of subjects. Seek multiple opportunities to interact and explore varied settings and cultures.
  • Avoid being a “box checker.” Measure your college education by integrating and balancing analysis and intuition. Seek to understand the diverse ways that a problem can be framed and explored. Don’t measure your education by the number of discrete courses accumulated.
  • Don’t allow a major to define an education. Many folks reflecting back on their education point to classes and experiences outside their major field of study as among the biggest difference makers in their career.

Class of 2020: If you can envision your college experience as a trek, lace up your boots and enjoy the views along the trail. It’s going to be an amazing hike.