Just before noon on an October Wednesday, students file in to an old chemistry lecture hall. They plunk down on the hard wood seats, grab notebooks and laptops from backpacks and shoot off last-minute texts before professor Greg Downey directs their attention to the front of the room.
The environment is pure college classroom, but the focus of this class — Taking Initiative, or Inter-LS 210 — is unequivocally directed toward students’ lives after graduation.
Offered since 2015 as a key component of the L&S Career Initiative, Taking Initiative guides students through self-reflection and goal setting and teaches practical job skills as well as how to parlay the knowledge and abilities they’re gaining in their liberal arts courses into future pursuits.
Knowing that students might feel too overwhelmed with current courseloads to think about their careers, LSCI organizers keep the one-credit class manageable. It’s held once a week — alternating between lecture and discussion — and assignments are “bite-size,” says Downey.
Students write resumes, create LinkedIn profiles and practice elevator speeches that highlight their skills — things students recognize the importance of but often don’t make time for, says Katherine Piel, a sophomore from Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. “You literally get credit for doing something you know you should do,” she says.
Piel, who is majoring in communication arts and environmental studies, enrolled in the class to learn how to best present herself and her skills to potential employers. She especially appreciated an exercise in which she wrote down things that were important to her, and then found connections between them. “My common threads were leadership, communication and service,” she says.
You literally get credit for doing something you know you should do.
Noah Joseph, a freshman from Plymouth, Wisconsin, approached Taking Initiative as a first step in career prep, but has learned a lot already. “I didn’t even have a resume before this,” says the biochemistry and Spanish major. “My TA always gives me great ideas,” such as playing up the skills and experiences gained from participation in organizations and clubs.
A strength of the course is the impressive mix of resources, including alumni who serve as mentors. Downey, teaching assistants and career advisors all share personal experiences and provide professional guidance.
In this early fall session, two alumni explain how their shared starting point in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication led to very different but equally successful career paths.
Colin Benedict is now news director of WISC-TV in Madison, while Debra Pierce teaches strategic communication in the J-School after several high-profile jobs in public relations. Following their passions, taking risks and sticking to their ethics have proven essential to their success, they tell students.
When alumni talk about their journeys — their accomplishments as well as their struggles — it helps students understand that they don’t need to have everything figured out right now.
“We can talk about it all day long, but students really get the message when alums come back five years later, or 25 years later,” Downey says.
Alumni can also help students identify connections between classes and careers, and drive home that what they’re doing now at the university isn’t totally separate from their post-college lives. Students start looking at courses and activities through a career lens, says Downey, and they begin to develop a career narrative that will constantly evolve.
“It’s about telling your story. You’re always building on that story with experiences,” he says. “This course is the beginning of students’ engagement with these issues, not the end.”