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Students in St. Norbert’s newest major (above, with biology prof Russ Feirer) design their own educational path as they develop the skills in demand by employers around the country.

Learning Meets Career Capabilities

A new academic program gives St. Norbert College students the opportunity to design their own educational path that incorporates courses in an array of subjects – all while gaining the particular skills employers are looking for.

The integrative studies major is being offered this fall as a secondary major. The intent is to give students the chance to support their first major with additional courses and skills that may be offered in other disciplines. Doing so, students will develop skills employers want, says Paul Johnson (Philosophy), associate dean of humanities and the advisor for the integrative studies program.

“The concept really is intended to augment your first major,” Johnson says. “That’s what employers are looking for: ‘We want you to take the psychology degree, but we also want you to have this array of other skills.’ We’re trying to design the program so that it actually answers to what employers are telling us they’re looking for in college graduates.”

Employers are more likely to hire college grads who can demonstrate problem-solving skills, the ability to work in teams, leadership skills, analytical and quantitative skills, and communication skills, both verbal and written, according to a 2017 survey by the National Association of Colleges & Employers, a nonprofit group that connects college career services offices with employers.

“That’s all the liberal arts skills, in a nutshell,” Johnson says. And as a liberal arts college, St. Norbert, especially with the addition of the integrative studies major, is in a good position to make sure students graduate with those skills, he says.

“Two things are brought together here: First of all, a focus on traditional liberal arts education. St. Norbert is a liberal arts college. (Second), employment prospects. The integrative studies [major] is an attempt to explicitly provide employers more of what they’re claiming in these national surveys what they want in their college graduates.

“Students are coming to us looking for a job. And employers are coming to us, saying, ‘Well, you want a job? Here’s what we want.’ Put the liberal arts together with a major and some other field, and you’ve got the best of both worlds,” Johnson says.

The integrative studies major also gives students the opportunity to get the best of both worlds on another level – they can combine interests across disciplines. Students will be encouraged to try courses in an array of subjects across multiple fields.

For example, a biology student may be discouraged from taking philosophy or English courses because they may not be required for the biology major. But with an integrative studies major, students would be able to explore courses that offer connections to both their interests and their primary majors. In the case of the biology student, she could take the biology course Humans & the Environment as well as Environmental Politics, a course offered in the political science discipline, all the while earning credits that count toward her majors.

“There’s going to be affinities between course content here and course content there,” Johnson says. “And we’re hoping by showing (students) these navigational pathways that, somewhere along the way, the themes will begin to gel relative to their sense of what they want to do with their career and their major, and that will sort of grow organically.”

That’s what sets the integrative studies major apart from the college’s already-offered independent major. The independent major requires students to outline a complete plan early in their college career, while the integrative studies major allows students to explore courses as their interests and goals develop and take focus.

Integrative studies students will choose the direction of their educational path themselves, trying out a variety of courses in their first two years. In their junior years, they’ll be expected to formulate a plan for their “signature work” – a project to be completed in their senior year that combines what they’ve learned in their chosen interdisciplinary courses, is devoted to a specific real-world problem, and demonstrates the skills that a student could offer an employer.

Faculty advisors will guide students during their signature work, and in choosing courses between disciplines by offering suggested learning pathways. But students are encouraged to drive their own educational plan.

The integrative studies major kicked off this fall with a five-year pilot program. Twenty-six first-years enrolled in the introductory course, and another 25 first-year students will be eligible to enroll in the program in Fall of 2019.

Dec. 19, 2018