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Moving Beyond Majors, Connecting Students to their Purpose

December 14, 2016 8:33 pm Published by 1 Comment


Consider the following two statements: “I am majoring in Public Health” and “I am learning about public health because I want to improve unsafe water conditions in third world countries.” Which do you think is more intrinsically motivating?  Not a hard decision, right?  Meaning is something we want in our work, and students feel the same way.

I am an optimistic person, who’s glass is always half full. That’s why, earlier this semester when I heard these words from a student, “I am ready to declare my major” my glass quickly overflowed with excitement. It was one of those “aha” moments in regards to meaning and intrinsic motivation.

I will explain that moment later on, but first let me describe how this came to fruition. I work in Career Exploration and Development for Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. Before this academic year, our office among other student services departments collaborated on a project to engage exploratory students enrolled in the First Year Experience (FYE) class. To implement the project, we created a wide variety of options for students to visit either a professional organization or attend a community service event. The goal of the project was to provide our students with early exposure to an organization’s environment, culture, and hiring needs to help students further develop their personal narratives around career success and purpose.

The term “purpose” is a hot topic term on the Kent State University campus, as well as, many others across the nation. For example, a design team from Stanford University has launched their vision for purpose learning called Stanford2025 in which a team from Stanford envisioned what higher education will look like in the year 2100. The group then went back in time to the year 2025 to describe what took place in the past to help make the year 2100 a reality.

Another model program includes Harvard University’s Project on Purpose and Values in Education, PAVE in which the goal of this program is “to discover and promote co-curricular programs that ask college students to consider ‘big questions’ of meaning, value, and purpose.” The PAVE project is “particularly curious about how programs that utilize reflection can have an influence on students and are narrowly focused on programming outside of the classroom.”

With programs like Stanford2025 and PAVE, along with transformative books like The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students about Vocation by Tim Clydesdale and articles from Lindsey Pollak about emphasizing purpose in the workplace to attract millennials, it is clear the subject of purpose is gaining momentum.

At Kent State University, our president, Beverly Warren approached the topic of purpose in her most recent State of the University Address by declaring “We aspire to bring the totality of the resources and reach of one of the nation’s largest research universities to higher education’s most important outcome: more college graduates who have the skills, talent and desire to change the world – who understand that a life of meaning is just as important as a life of financial comfort.”

As a result of the driving forces behind purpose, projects like the earlier described FYE site visits are becoming part of our university programming. I recently accompanied a group of first year exploratory students to Akron Global Business Accelerator to learn more on how community engagement is expressed in a unique start-up environment (a single building hosting 50 different businesses). Through the course of the day, the students became increasingly engaged and curious about the businesses we visited all the way up to our last stop, a producer of hydroponic basil, lettuce, and micro-greens. The site visit concluded with a reflection session, which is a key component of purposeful learning.

During the reflection session, students shared many interesting comments including how their original disinterest in attending transformed into something being “so awesome” and well worth attending. Another comment came from a student who was leaning towards a major in the arts. She initially confessed that she didn’t see the reason behind the visit and regretted coming because she did not have an interest in “business.” To her surprise, the visit exposed her to a beautifully decorated building with innovative art designs, large murals painted with spray paint, and an interior office design that was reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Each of these aspects helped her to realize the value of art in the workplace and the impact art has on an organizational culture. The visit ultimately reinforced this student’s interest in the field of art, but also informed her on how art is incorporated in business.

As for my “aha” moment, it occurred during our reflection session when one of the exploratory students stated “I am ready to declare my major.” It was the moment I realized that these site visits create a way for students to explore, interact, and see first-hand what it is like to work for an organization. It was the moment I understood the true benefits of these visits. Through these visits, a student may experience a place where they absolutely do not want to work, or a place where they could definitely see themselves fitting in one day. Additionally, what I have learned through my “aha” moment is that both experiences are great, as discovering what you don’t like is just as important as honing in on what you do like. After fifteen years of experience in higher education, these moments can sometimes get lost in our day to day routine. But not today, because it was the moment I realized our programming around purpose was having a real impact.

The key to lasting motivation goes beyond grades and money — it’s intrinsic… and purpose fuels intrinsic motivation. As students are connected to a purpose, but most importantly their purpose, they will have the motivation to learn, engage in the community, and inevitably change the world!

Do you see a day when majors are no longer a part of the higher education lexicon? How do you help students find or uncover their purpose? I’d love to hear your comments or ideas in the comments below.

Author: Keith Smith is the Cooperative Education Coordinator at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.



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1 Comment

  • Bill Fletcher says:

    I enjoyed reading your article. Earlier in my career, I had several of these “aha” moments as director of a career center that also had strong cooperative education and service learning programs. The important part is not necessarily the experience itself, but the reflection and evaluation of the experience. Of course, these types of programs are resource-intensive. I applaud Kent State for emphasizing student development of sense of purpose. The challenge today is not getting students to “define” purpose, but to “redefine” purpose. There is a national survey stating the top reasons for students going to college as better jobs, to make more money, and to be very well off. All of these rated higher than general education and appreciation of ideas. On top of that, middle and high schools, federal and state entities, and society in general emphasize the benefit of going to college as getting a degree (so you can get a job and make more money). [I originally included Admissions Offices in the previous statement; some have moved beyond that; some haven’t]. Your FYE course is a great example of an intentional, resourced program that engages students where they are. It would have been easier to watch a video or have a class speaker, but far less meaningful. I hope you continue to have many “aha” moments with students!

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