Why St. Kate's liberal arts grads are thriving in a tough job market.
BY ANDY STEINER | ILLUSTRATION BY MOLLY BUTTERFOSS
Want to get Alan Silva worked up? Suggest that pursuing a liberal arts degree might seem impractical in a tight economy.
When times get rough, he says, it may be natural to focus on one "practical" area of study, but the usually unflappable Silva insists that a liberal arts education is the perfect preparation for career success — especially when jobs are few and far between.
"What we teach in the liberal arts at St. Kate's is more relevant in a tough economy," says Silva, assistant vice president and dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences and the College for Women. "One thing we hear all the time is that when the job market tightens, the people with the most flexibility and versatility are the ones who are going to be the most continually employable."
Silva takes a deep breath and continues: "And flexibility is the definition of a liberal arts graduate. A liberal arts grad is not dependent on one type of employer or one narrow economic sector that could experience declining need. When times get tough, a liberal arts major can write her own job description."
That's certainly been the case for Rebecca McDonald '07, who majored in women's studies and critical studies of race and ethnicity (CRST). When she graduated, she didn't realize that she was about to step into the worst
"Right out of school, I landed this temporary job as a program director for the Minnesota Women's Political Caucus," she recalls. "I ran their diversity outreach program. It was my job to travel around the state and talk to women of color about the importance of getting involved in the political process."
When funding for her position ran out, McDonald picked up a paid internship with the Citizens' League; when that position was completed, she covered the 2008 presidential election from a youth perspective for the national political organization Rock the Vote (RTV).
For McDonald, a budding photographer and political activist, the RTV internship was a dream come true. "They gave me a laptop, a cell phone, a camera," she says enthusiastically. "I traveled everywhere. I was at the Republican and Democratic conventions and almost every other event. It was amazing."
The job ended, however, once the ballots were counted. And McDonald soon recognized that the employment picture had changed. "I applied everywhere, but I could not get a job," she says. "Nobody was hiring."
Capitalizing on skills she'd picked up in her St. Kate's classes — and emboldened by the photography assignments she'd landed for the Twin Cities alternative newsweekly City Pages — she founded her own business: B FRESH Photography and Media.
McDonald now splits her time between Minneapolis and New York, taking
A first-generation college student who transferred to St. Kate's from Minneapolis Community and Technical College, McDonald says her parents initially questioned her choice. "My dad — he's a mechanic — sometimes used to say, 'You should go to technical school,'" she recalls, "but it turns out that the liberal arts education I got was exactly what I needed for the work I do today."
Her CRST studies have helped McDonald communicate with a diverse list of clients. Her women's studies courses gave her confidence in her abilities. And a marketing course has helped her promote her business.
"The research bears out that people with liberal arts degrees have more employability because the breadth of their education makes them more flexible in the job market," Silva says. "Our graduates go into many different fields."
A strong foundation
Every year the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) asks employers what skills they are seeking when hiring new college graduates. Verbal communication, a strong work ethic, teamwork skills, analytical skills and initiative top the list in this year's survey.
"Time and time again, the characteristics employers list are the skills you develop in the liberal arts," says Kimberly Betz, St. Catherine's director of career development. "The ability to communicate your ideas effectively, to collaborate with others, to analyze research — these are all key elements of a liberal arts education."
Anne McKeig '89 knew she wanted to be a lawyer from the time she was in ninth grade. "But I knew earning a liberal arts degree came first," she says. "Lawyers need to read, write and reason. So I figured an English degree would be the perfect complement." McKeig also relished the opportunity to dive in to other disciplines, including French history, philosophy, theology and math. "That helped me become a well-rounded person," she says.
Her well-rounded education helped McKeig stay on course through a recession that shook the United States in the early 1990s — just as she was wrapping up her J.D. at Hamline University School of Law and preparing to enter the workforce.
"I believe my degree from St. Kate's helped open doors for me," she says. "People could see the benefit in the fact that I was a generalist, that I understood there was a world beyond the law. It gave me an edge over all the other candidates."
In 1992, at only age 25, McKeig landed a prime position at the Hennepin County Attorney's office, where she specialized in prosecuting child abuse cases. She held that position until 2008, when then-Governor Tim Pawlenty picked her to be a Hennepin County District Court judge.
Success stories like McKeig's are no surprise to Dean Silva. "At St. Kate's, we've been doing liberal arts for a long, long time," he says. "The liberal arts have always been relevant, and that is only clearer when the going gets tough. Our graduates don't just survive. They thrive."