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Crafting A Meaningful Identity: Humphreys On Finding Career Fulfillment

Debra Humphreys, vice president for policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), opened her talk Thursday at Corcoran Commons with a quote from Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day:” “Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”

Humphreys’ talk focused on how expensive and lengthy college educations can better prepare graduates in three major areas—achieving professional success, responsible citizenship, and general flourishing. The ultimate goal, she stressed, is to cultivate a life of meaning and purpose.

“The same capacities that would let you be a good citizen are needed in a global economy—it’s not an either—or choice.” 


Humphreys said that the United States’ founding was based on education – the success of the democratic experiment depended on how well its participants were educated. She argued that this mission continues today.

In addition to responsible citizenship, Humphreys said that as higher education becomes more of a requirement for success, colleges must adapt their teaching methods and programs to adequately equip students to enter an increasingly competitive and uncertain job market.

“The same capacities that would let you be a good citizen are needed in a global economy—it’s not an either—or choice,” Humphreys said.

The AAC&U has pushed to address these issues through Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP), a decade-long initiative launched in 2005.

In 2007, the AAC&U published “College Learning for the New Global Century,” a 70-page report written as part of LEAP. The report outlined four areas the Association’s 1,100 member schools could work on improving—knowledge of human cultures and the natural world, intellectual and practical skills, personal and social responsibility, and integrative and applied learning.

“There’s so much knowledge out there that we can’t fill people’s heads with everything,” Humphreys said. “But in this economy, people need to know how to find and use knowledge.”

She said that employers are placing more and more value on students’ ability to learn quickly and apply what they know in a range of situations. According to Humphreys, businesses fear that there will soon be a shortage of college graduates ready to tackle the new logistical challenges posed by  globalization. Business leaders often tell Humphreys that improving these skills may be the most important role of higher education today.

“We’re graduating people who can solve problems well if they look exactly like they do in the textbook, but these problems never actually look like that,” she said.

Humphreys called applied learning the “21st-century liberal art.” She then went into some specifics on the types of experiences that can help students improve their skills. She said that things like freshman seminars, writing-intensive courses, research, global learning, and capstone projects are good ways for undergraduates to make themselves more competitive.

Humphreys cited data collected for the AAC&U by Hart Research Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based polling group, that said 87 percent of employers are more likely to hire a student who wrote a senior thesis.

“Some students don’t even realize that in interviews they should be talking about these projects,” she said.

Joseph Du Pont, associate vice president for student affairs and career services, also spoke. He highlighted some of the steps Boston College has taken that address what Humphreys talked about, including the launch of redesigned internship courses and externship programs.

Humphreys placed particular emphasis on how colleges and universities can help students articulate their passions and goals to employers, especially through an online presence.

“One of our jobs is to help them craft a meaningful digital identity that displays all they’ve learned and developed in college,” she said. “They also have to rehearse their own story of their vocational journey.”

One audience member asked Humphreys about how students should approach the jobs market and balance the need for financial success with doing satisfying work. Humphreys said that students must think about their careers well before senior year. She cited the University of Washington’s Husky Experience program, which integrates academics and career training, as an example of how colleges can connect academic courses, public service, careers and general well being.

Throughout her talk, Humphreys stressed that the AAC&U’s focus on career readiness stems from research that shows that personal and professional satisfaction are highly correlated. She noted that BC, in particular, is rooted in this belief.

We as educators who believe in liberal education and Jesuit education need to get out there and talk about how education is not just about…building cogs in wheels,” she said. “We need to ask what is worth doing for me and my life and what is worth doing for society.” 

Featured Image by Alex Gaynor / Heights Staff

December 6, 2015