by David J. Smith (bio is below)
When one thinks about “higher education” there is often the lumping together of community college, undergraduate bachelor’s conferring college, and graduate school students. We do the same with “secondary education” sometimes thinking that middle and high schoolers are more alike than different. Anyone who has had school aged children know that the maturity levels of a 7th grader and a 12th grader could not be more different!
In higher education, the differences focus less on maturity and more on personal objectives. Community college students are frequently focused on attaining specific job readiness in fields that require significant training such as in the trades (e.g., electrician, plumber, welder, etc.), nursing or law enforcement. Some students in community colleges are exploring liberal arts fields with the hopes of transferring to bachelor’s degree institutions. At the other end, graduate education is designed for advanced professional career pathways requiring complex understanding of discrete areas including law, medicine, and technical and research-based fields. At times, graduate education can be viewed as a natural progression that can begin at a community college. Obtaining a community college associate degree in nursing, which would allow one to work as a registered nurse, might lead to seeking a graduate degree which permit a nurse to work as a nurse practitioner (after obtaining a bachelor’s degree).
The specific career needs of students can be very different. Though I’m not a college career counselor, but a career coach working with adults, I’ve taught at all levels of higher education. Early in my career I was a full-time community college professor. I later taught in state and private liberal arts colleges that awarded bachelor’s degrees, and currently teach at the graduate level. I have also taught at both the undergraduate and law school levels in the Fulbright Program. I’ve engaged every type of learner: first generation, elite legacy, international, and returning to college adults.
Last week was by all measures a microcosm of my teaching career. On Monday, I met with my graduate class in conflict resolution at George Mason University. On Tuesday, I visited with students at Northern Virginia Community College and presented on peacebuilding awareness. On Wednesday, I attended the Society for International Development/Washington’s career fair, where I met with students interested in international development. And on Thursday, I gave workshops at Loyola University Maryland to students minoring in peace studies.
Though the backgrounds and expectations of the students varied, there are some things that all students share when it comes to seeking a career in social change.
I Can Make A Difference
The world is at times a bleak place. The past few weeks we have come to grips with the coronavirsus as well as wild fires in Australia. (One of my clients was evacuated from China with his young family on Friday). I don’t need to give a rundown of all the challenges we face. Even a casual watcher of global happenings knows the world is a mess.
But in the face of all we deal with, students are “half-glass full” in their perspectives. My grad students were excited about engaging in learning to facilitate conversations on controversial topics. I had one student email me after class to share how much he was looking forward to learning a skill that he might use to make change. I had the community college students engage in a “peace entrepreneurship” activity where in groups they came up with community projects. Students looked at the problems of violence against women, bullying, and the integration of immigrants. They shared with me their belief that they can make a difference in improving others’ lives. One group proposed setting up a multi-cultural center to provide free laundry services for immigrants (recognizing that immigrants might be living in places where there are no laundry facilities). At the international development conference, I talked with students who were excited about the work while recognizing that making change was difficult yet doable. Finally, at Loyola students were passionate about the work of peacebuilding and prepared to work in both their local communities and globally to make change. A few students were considering “gap” years after graduating so that they could work for social change in volunteer positions right away. One was considering the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, another the Peace Corps.
Making Change Is Best a Collaborative Effort
Making change often requires working with others. Identifying projects that individuals with different skills and expertise can come together on is the key to social change.
This was most apparent with the community college group. In teams, they came up not only with the challenge they needed to address, but the means they would use. Even though the students represented different backgrounds, they recognized common problems facing their communities. With my graduate students, I had them practice facilitation in pairs, recognizing that a team effort is the best approach to engaging with a group. At the international development conference, there was much discussion from a panel of practitioners on the need for working across disciplines and with many groups to advance development objectives. And finally, some of the Loyola students were already working with college and community groups to make a difference.
Continuous Learning is Important in Facing Future Challenges
Finally, there was recognition that learning and building skills is a continuous life long process. My graduate students, some of them not the typical 20 somethings we tend to think of dominating graduate school, were looking forward to new aptitudes that they could apply as professionals. The community college students shared about their plans after community college, including getting bachelor’s degrees. With those seeking an international development career, there was a discussion at one session about the need to develop new technology skills particularly when it comes to working in M&E – monitoring and evaluation – which is critical to that work. And finally, the Loyola University students talked about graduate school, but also shared about other types of training they might seek, such as language classes or learning to apply for grants. With all the students I met with, I emphasized the value that travel can offer in learning. For students who are from modest backgrounds which is often the case with community college students, traveling might not be an easily accessible option: but it can be a goal. I know of community college students who have ended up with a Fulbright grant or joined the Peace Corps.
At the end the week, I was hopeful for the future. Those of us who have spent our careers working to advance important social, economic, and political change should be heartened by the generations that will follow us. Our work will continue.
David J. Smith is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing, 2016). He is also president of the Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc. He can be reached at https://davidjsmithconsulting.com or [email protected]
See additional articles by David J. Smith on PCDN on Careers & Social Change. A few key highlights: