Wes Fillman chose a liberal arts college because he knew a great education would enhance his future. But he never could have imagined his early professional trajectory unfolding as it did…
Wes Fillman chose a liberal arts college because he knew a great education would enhance his future. But he never could have imagined his early professional trajectory unfolding as it did.
He fell in love with learning at Franklin & Marshall College, where engaged professors taught him to think, question, write, research, compute, and defend his arguments. Graduating as a history major in 2011, he earned a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree in higher education at Harvard, where he focused on college access for the underserved. Because his research challenged him to put theory into practice, he took a two-year job as a pre-kindergarten teacher in Baltimore through Teach For America (TFA)—while also earning a second master’s in early childhood education.
Witnessing the inequalities of American public schools was an education in itself. Driven to make a still-greater difference, but wanting to come at educational inequity from another angle, Wes took a new job with TFA, moving to Washington, DC, to recruit more accomplished young graduates into America’s neediest classrooms.
Teach For America has an advanced system of identifying results-oriented teachers, and learning it sparked Wes’s interest in the ways talent drives organizational success. He became enthralled with how organizational culture unleashes talent—or does not. Could his own calling become education in another form, not working with students in schools but with adults in the knowledge sector?
So, Wes switched fields and coasts to join Google in a role he loves, attracting promising innovators into the tech industry. No one could have charted this path ahead of time—not even Wes; he created it organically, constantly learning and growing after college, living the liberal arts.
Wes is exceptional, but he’s also exemplary of a new generation of “emerging adults.” Clark University Psychology professor Jeffrey Jensen Arnett coined this term after his research showed that this generation of recent graduates is moving into maturity in markedly different ways than did their parents and grandparents. Emerging adults tend to view the 20s as a period of conscious self-development and mobility. They have high ideals and value making an impact—but they want to try out diverse jobs and fields before making defining commitments like marriage, child-rearing, buying a home, and putting down roots.
Of course, the lack of an ironclad life plan can cause anxiety, especially with the erosion of once-stable jobs in fields ranging from law to finance and journalism to corporate management. Transitions are unsettling, but the economy is creating more high-skills jobs, and well-educated graduates are finding them. When my institution surveyed our 2015 graduates six months after commencement, we found that 99 percent are working or studying full time. This is great news. And as they take their first post-college steps, most of our young graduates understand that through continued workplace learning and personal discernment, as Arnett writes in Emerging Adulthood, they will “move gradually toward making enduring choices.”
Prizing learning, creativity, impact, and flexibility—hungry for meaning and a calling—these young Americans are the future of the workforce and the country. Having spent the last two decades mentoring hundreds of them, I’ve seen how one resource appreciates in value as they navigate the open-ended journey into their 30s: A liberal arts education.
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Here are three more 20-something life stories that illustrate my point:
Shadoe Tarver, a Posse Scholar from New York City and 2010 graduate of F&M, studied government with a deep yearning to serve society through community leadership. During his sophomore year he wrote a heartfelt letter to F&M alumna Patricia Harris, then-first deputy mayor of New York City, to ask about working in city government. That led to two summer internships and a first job after college in the Community Affairs Unit.
Over the course of three years, Shadoe was assigned a huge array of tasks, everything from attending community center openings to helping lead the city’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Some of the projects were mundane. Some required staggering hours of work. Some brought to life theories he’d studied in college, and many covered nitty-gritty quality of life concerns.
After New York’s mayoral transition in 2013-14, he was offered the chance to do people-serving work for the company Bloomberg LP. He’d never imagined working in the private sector and didn’t know anything about corporate cultures. The learning curve was steep, but the combination of his college-honed analytical skills with his public sector know-how has allowed him to succeed. Today, he manages Bloomberg Startup, the company’s global education engagement program, that leverages the company’s history as a startup, its expertise in data and technology, and engages its employees as mentors to inspire the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.
Shadoe’s trajectory shows that even when young adults have a strong sense of calling, they still benefit from trying out different ways of making an impact. Indeed, some of the best early jobs—like Shadoe’s—come with hybrid duties that require independent thinking, teamwork, creativity, and the ability to shift gears fast among projects and diverse types of work.
This is exactly the kind of young professional who finds more and more responsibility landing on his or her desk. And it is exactly the kind of graduate liberal arts programs produce, with their emphasis on a broad and rigorous curriculum, discussion-based seminars, constant writing, and in-depth majors.
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There’s another model of living the liberal arts that F&M’s faculty and Office of Student and Post-Graduate Development promote to some young graduates. We see it in the professional development of Maribel Vasquez, who graduated in 2009, and combined international travel, work, and scholarship to create a powerful springboard for career success.
A Posse Scholar like Shadoe, this Dominican-American first-generation college goer had planned to major in English, but after travelling to El Salvador as part of a class, she knew that international studies was for her, prompting later study abroad in Bolivia and Uganda. These were bold decisions, and her family supported her.
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After graduating, Maribel won a fellowship through Humanity in Action to conduct research on human trafficking and immigration law in Denmark. The following year she completed a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship in Venezuela. Her boldness in exploring the world and striving to understand multiple countries and cultures made her stand out when she applied for and won a prestigious Department of State Pickering Fellowship, which then paid for her master’s degree in international affairs from American University.
After graduate school, Maribel entered public service as an American diplomat posted in China—a role that requires all of the understanding she cultivated in and after college in fields like history, policy, international affairs, culture, and language. Living the liberal arts in her 20s was perfect preparation for becoming a U.S. Foreign Service officer, even if she couldn’t have known precisely where each step might lead.
College isn’t about merely teaching students cold facts. Much more, it’s about awakening in the young their gifts to keep learning, to work at the mind’s limits, to touch the world before them, and to live meaningfully in shape-shifting societies. That’s to say, a liberal arts education doesn’t end with the conferring of a degree, but sets up a young adult for constant skill-building and growth.
Finally, consider Sarah Waybright, whose education empowered her to fuse old ideas and new ones in ways that called out the innovator within.
Sarah graduated on F&M’s pre-med track in 2006 but didn’t know exactly what to do next. Her science studies, along with writing and organizational skills honed in liberal arts classes, helped her get hired by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, in a job that opened her eyes to emerging opportunities in health care, including dietetics. This growth prompted her to pursue a master’s in human nutrition at Drexel University, integrating her knowledge of physiology and biochemistry with new interests in teaching, counseling, and—crucially—cooking.
Sarah then launched her own brand, WhyFoodWorks, through which she prepares gourmet meals for small groups and in the process teaches them how food impacts their bodies. Her clients love it. Her goal is to make the science of nutrition more readily known and used—and WhyFoodWorks makes learning fun… and delicious.
Without her diversified education—in science, writing, health, and humanities—Sarah could not have envisioned her company or brought it to life. I like her observation that liberal arts students “learn that failure is only in quitting—there is always another way, a new solution, or a path around whatever roadblocks may arise.”
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Her celebration of intellectual perseverance reveals a vital strand running through the fabric of all four stories: Liberal arts education endows emerging adults with the intellectual power they want and today’s knowledge economy demands.
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A 2015 report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities concluded that “nearly all employers (91 percent) agree that for career success, ‘a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.’”
That’s one reason why liberal arts education seeks to give students enduring intellectual strength and critical thinking, rather than technical or vocational knowledge, which can quickly become outdated.
“Knowledge is power,” Thomas Jefferson famously wrote. But in today’s global economy, where vast volumes of information can be found with several clicks on a keyboard, knowledge by itself is, in fact, not enough.
Wes, Shadoe, Maribel, and Sarah all brought to the creative years of their 20s intellectual depth and agility—and today those qualities comprise true power—the power to seek, know, do, and find in a lightning-fast world, and through that to create authentic, flourishing adult selves.
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