How well do campus resources prepare students for life after Whitman?

Rachel Alexander

Illustration: Ruth Hwang

Before I set off for Whitman, my parents sat down to give me some good old-fashioned advice. After all the usual concerns about studying hard and making good use of my time in college, they turned to my eventual course of study.

“Make sure you major in something practical,” they said, without much elaboration.

I reminded them that back in the day, they had both been African Studies majors at Georgetown University, which mostly ended that conversation. Still, as I came to Whitman and made friends who were studying rhetoric, environmental humanities and philosophy, I often found myself wondering––what do people do with these degrees after graduating? Was it really possible to get a decent job coming out of a liberal arts college in rural Washington?

The short answer is yes. Many of the Whitman grads I talked to are doing amazing things with their lives, whether it’s raft guiding, working on Wall Street or starting their own business. They often see Whitman’s diverse liberal arts education as a key reason they were able to be successful.

“What Whitman prepared me for was to be able to enter each new experience with the confidence that I’ll pick it up and the ability to fall back on a few fundamental and essential skills Whitman emphasizes: critical thinking, clear writing, and open and effective communication,” said alumna Kate Greenberg ‘09 in an email. Greenberg, who studied environmental humanities, has farmed, sold chocolate and monitored river restoration efforts since graduating from Whitman. Although she’s held a variety of jobs, she said that her Whitman education has helped her be successful at everything she’s done.

“With these [skills], I feel much more prepared to take on new opportunities regardless of my knowledge of the specifics prior to the work.”

Alumnus Chad Trexler ’11, who studied geology, agreed that Whitman’s liberal arts focus helped him get jobs a several different National Parks.

“I think the diverse requirements of a liberal arts school like Whitman are a huge benefit for the students coming out––my knowledge and experience not only in geology, but also in biology, history, writing and public communication all have been valuable to me while working with the National Park Service,” he said in an email.

Alumnus Scott Kilpatrick ’03, who is currently a vice president at Goldman Sachs, believes that the core of a liberal arts curriculum provides skills that employers value.

“I believe one of the most important things the liberal arts education provides is the ability to think on your feet, learn new ideas quickly and take those new ideas and apply them to make a process, idea [or] function better or more efficient. This is what businesses are looking for from their employees,” he said in an email.

Still, the news isn’t all good. As the Associated Press recently reported, available jobs for college graduates are at a historic low. While some specific fields, such as nursing and technology, enjoy steady growth, students with liberal arts degrees sometimes find themselves waiting tables.

In short, while Whitman students may graduate well-prepared to enter the workforce, that doesn’t always mean it’s easy for them to find a job. Theoretically, Whitman’s Student Engagement Center (formerly known as the Career Center) exists to help bridge this gap. The SEC can provide advice on résumés and career plans, as well as assistance finding internships and jobs. Still, while several alumni said they found the résumé workshops useful, most said they didn’t make much use of the Career Center during their time at Whitman.

“I know the Career Center put on all sorts of résumé workshops,” said Alumna Elena Gustafson ’10 in an email. “I never went to any of them, or the jobs fairs . . . I think the resources are there to help prep yourself, with a bit of initiative.”

Alumnus Lewis Silver ’10 also said that he didn’t really use the Career Center. Silver studied philosophy at Whitman and was involved with the debate team. He’s currently in law school at Washington University in St. Louis, and says that the Career Center there is more proactive in seeking out students who might need help.

“I feel like they’ve figured out something that a lot of other schools––Whitman included––haven’t yet: that the types of students who are responsible enough to come in and ask for help on their own are NOT the ones who are going to need serious help finding a career after graduation,” he said in an email. “Having fantastic resources available only to students who will proactively seek them out is often a waste.”

Susan Buchanan, Whitman’s career specialist, agreed that reaching students who aren’t proactive can be a challenge. Still, she believes that career searching isn’t something that can be forced.

“People aren’t ready to hear it until they’re ready to hear it,” she said.

Assistant Dean for Student Engagement Noah Leavitt agreed, noting that thinking about internships and careers is often stressful for students who have no idea what they want to do after graduation.

“You can be almost counterproductive if you start hitting people really hard,” he said. “The driving force behind student affairs at Whitman is you meet people where they’re at.”

Leavitt and Buchanan have been expanding the services offered by the SEC by offering more workshops for students. Recognizing the importance of networking in finding jobs and internships, they have also focused more attention on establishing an alumni network that can serve as a resource to students.

“We have continued to hear that networking is the most valuable job skill,” said Buchanan. Because many companies are now asking their employees for recommendations when positions become available, having connections with Whitman alumni can help students land jobs in a variety of fields.

Whitman alumni often feel strong affiliation to the college, a fact Buchanan believes helps students network effectively.

“Whitman alumni are very gracious. They have been very eager to participate,” she said.

Assistant Director of Alumni Relations Jason Arp believes that  focusing on alumni for networking is a useful first step, especially because they can often provide insights into different career paths.

“The alumni have a wide range not just of jobs, but of experiences,” he said.

Still, he said actually finding a job requires more than simply knowing alumni in the field you’re interested in.

“It’s very rare to walk into a room where someone who is in a position to hire and has a job opening has the perfect job that you want to do,” he said. Still, alumni can often serve as windows into professions by connecting students with peers who are looking to hire.

While some Whitman students have found jobs and meaningful connections through this network, the SEC’s alumni database only contains 1300 individuals, most of whom are concentrated in the western United States. Because of these limits, the alumni network isn’t able to serve every student who uses it. Alumna Margaux Cameron ’10 said that while she was able to find post-graduate jobs through the Career Center, none of them were in the field she wanted to enter––publishing.

“When it came to looking for work in publishing, Whitman was unhelpful. I made multiple appointments at the Career Center and with my major advisors during my junior [and] senior years to discuss post-grad plans, but other than résumé [and] cover letter help and writing recommendations, nothing really came of them,” she said in an email. “The Career Center couldn’t give me any names of alums who worked in publishing––even though I then randomly found one on my own.”

Cameron felt that Whitman’s resources work well for many students who are interested in environmental careers, activism or education. She also said that many of her classmates were able to get Fulbrights and Watsons through the Office of Fellowships and Grants.

“Depending on what you want to do, I think Whitman can be hugely helpful. It just wasn’t super helpful for me and all my other friends who either want to work in more big-industry fields, who don’t know what they want to do yet, or who want to work anywhere outside the Pacific Northwest [or] Colorado,” she said.

Kilpatrick echoed Cameron’s concerns about preparing students for careers in business fields.

“The Career Center needs to be reaching out to students early in their Whitman careers to help them begin to think about what they want to do after they graduate,” he said.

While Whitman is good at advising students who want to continue on into graduate programs, law school or medical school, Kilpatrick believes the importance of getting started early with a business career is not emphasized enough.

“For those students that may be interested in going on to work in business, they are at a drastic disadvantage if they are not looking to land internships after their freshman and sophomore years, and especially after their junior years, as these are the ways most firms fill their full time rosters,” he said. “It’s not enough now to graduate and then begin looking for a job.  The process needs to start early and I think the Career Center could do a better job at letting student know of timelines [and] provide outlets to potential businesses and recruiting cycles.”

While Whitman is often seen as a campus full of idealists and future Peace Corps volunteers, this trend may be starting to shift.

“A lot of students are interested in making a difference in the world, but I’m seeing an increasing number of students who are interested in the business world,” said Buchanan.

Whitman’s small size and rural location puts it as a disadvantage for recruiters, since any one company will likely only have a few students interested in jobs there. Leavitt said that in recent years, the number of new hiring done by companies at campus recruiting events has declined significantly, largely because it’s not cost-effective for companies.

Rather than trying to get recruiters to Whitman, Leavitt said the SEC’s most useful role is in putting students in touch with alumni at companies they might be interested in working for.

Arp felt that while these alumni connections are useful, an ideal SEC would have the capacity to travel more and do their own networking.

“I would love to see the Student Engagement Center able to have the budget to go make contacts on their own, rather than just using a single alumnus that they know of,” he said. “It’s really hard to build a program off-campus when you have so many responsibilities on campus.”

Arp’s office hosts alumni gatherings in cities with large concentrations of Whitman alumni, such as Seattle, Portland and the Bay Area. He said that social events like this yield many useful connections to alumni just starting their careers.

Internships also play a crucial role in student success. With this in mind, the SEC more than doubled the number of Whitman students receiving internship grants this year, to 70.

“We’re very proud of what the program’s been able to do this year,” said Leavitt.

Of course, not every student will be able to land a job or internship through the SEC immediately after graduation. Still, Cameron encouraged students to not lose hope, even if they’re initially unable to find a job doing something they love.

“Once I realized that Whitman wasn’t really going to be directly helpful for me, I managed to find a good path on my own. Going to the publishing institute last summer was definitely the best career move I’ve ever made-an industry-specific diploma and alumni network are priceless,” she said. “If Whitman doesn’t give them to you, then you just have to go out and find it for yourself-and that’s where my Whitman transcript, academic reputation [and] strong network of professors to write recommendations came in handy.”

Alumnus Aaron Blank ’01, who studied theater at Whitman and went on to a career in audio publishing at Random House, said that it’s also important to keep things in perspective.

“Don’t freak out. One of the best pieces of advice my advisor gave me was, ‘You can’t really screw up your life until you turn 27,'” he said.