Student Engagement Center Continues Rapid Growth

North Bennett

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The Student Engagement Center (SEC) provides Whitman students with a wide variety of career development and community service opportunities, but it has not always been that way. In fact, before 2009, the SEC did not even exist.

Since its conception, the SEC has grown into an innovative service helping students and alumni gainfully employ their academic interests in meaningful professional experiences. According to the Student Engagement Center’s director Noah Leavitt, the SEC was created in part as a response to students’ career concerns after the 2008 financial crisis and resulting recession.

“[D]uring the 2008-2009 economic downturn…people asked the college, ‘Is Whitman doing every single thing that it can to make sure that students are prepared to go into a challenging economic climate?’ And I think the college decided that it wasn’t doing enough, and that’s why it created the SEC,” Leavitt said.

At the time, no other collegiate institution had a program that focused on community service, civic engagement, volunteer experiences, professional development, and advising in the way the SEC does. Leavitt attributes the strength and comprehensiveness of the SEC’s services to the financial investment the College has put into the program, as well as to the program’s receptivity to student and alumni input.

The recent hiring of the SEC’s Director of Business Engagement Kim Rolfe provides a recent example of the program’s commitment to catering to student and alumni needs. The new position reflects rising student and alumni interests in the business and technology sectors, which the SEC was previously able to offer only limited guidance on.

“We were able to create a position to bring expertise into the Center for somebody that knows about the private sector to open that up in the same way that other aspects of the world of work were opened up already,” Leavitt said.

Professor of Sociology Michelle Janning, a supporter of the SEC, noted that the establishment of programs like the SEC can be seen as part of a general increase in the number and types of services offered by colleges and universities.

“The current trend in higher education includes a movement to providing students with access to certain kinds of resources beyond the classroom…and this has not always existed in colleges and universities. But it is normal now, and expectations from potential students (and their parents) are getting higher and higher in terms of these resources,” said Janning in an e-mail, “That Whitman is operating in a competitive marketplace means we are…part of the race to meet needs of potential students. The students who come to places like Whitman now expect to find these kinds of beyond-the-classroom resources available and plentiful.”

Dr. Philip D. Gardner, ‘69, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, remarked that programs like the SEC are valuable in giving students the work experience necessary to be rewarded for their education in the job market.

“One of the challenges for liberal arts grads is being able to connect their rich experiences in the context of work (even graduate school now that 65% of PHDs do not go into academe – less than 20% enter tenure track positions).  So getting a variety of experiences outside the academic environment is essential to gain perspective and hone skills in different contexts,” Gardner said in an email.

While liberal arts colleges are traditionally seen as places of studious retreat, according to Leavitt students now want to remain involved in the world outside of the academy during their studies. Citing research from the Alumni Office, Leavitt reported that every year more students are arriving at Whitman seeking to continue the type of community service experience they began in high school. The SEC hopes to combine this commitment to service with students’ academic interests in order to help them find their purpose.

“The way that the SEC works is to take all that desire and curiosity and passion that students have for being citizens in the world, and then making sure that as they’re thinking about what they want to do long term, that their plans and questions, are in some ways, coming out of what they feel, experience and learn when they are participating in the world,” Leavitt said.

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