The Value of the Liberal Arts

August 1, 2013

The instant I made the decision to attend Stonehill College to study English, everybody and anybody assumed I wanted to a.) be a teacher or b.) be a lawyer. Neither of these options was particularly appealing to me and folks were incredulous when I told them so. "Well... then, what do you want to do with that degree?" friends, teachers, and family members asked with unease and an alarming presumption (to me at least) that an 18-year-old should be fairly certain, if not totally clear, on what her impending 45 years of professional life should hold. You can imagine the further shock when I gleefully declared that I had virtually no idea how I would use the degree. I wanted it because I found the social and political themes of literature to be fascinating, because I got yelled at for sneaking books under the dinner table in elementary school, because by the time I learned to walk I could waddle over to the bookshelf and retrieve books by name. I loved literature all my life and I wanted to spend four years studying it in the company of other people who did too. Cue the blank stares, the pretentious winks, and the incredibly insightful (not) wisdom that sooner or later I would realize what was practical and change not only my mind but my major too. And so it began, several months before I set foot in my first college dorm, with endless justifications I repeatedly offered to prove studying English at a small, liberal arts college was not a crazy idea.

The New York Times has saved me the trouble of further justifying why a liberal arts education, and particularly a degree like English, is worthwhile. The piece argues that in the mad dash to pay off increasingly expensive educations, students are turning away from degrees that are perceived as less lucrative and losing a "rare and precious inheritance" that comes from a humanities or social science degree. In my experience -- which of course cannot account for all experiences but will be used to make a point here -- the liberal arts education goes further than simply equipping students with wide-ranging and useful skills such as precise communication and creative problem solving, but provides tools to truly understand the global community and contribute to it in a meaningful way.

Let me explain. Through academic programs I spent a semester in Ireland, another one in Washington, D.C. and a few weeks in Ghana. Through volunteer opportunities I have served programs and people in Brockton, Massachusetts, New Orleans, West Virginia, and the Bronx. My experiences are not unique at Stonehill and certainly not limited students who choose to study the humanities. Coupled with two majors that required me to think critically, read, write, and justify my ideas with evidence, this exposure to places, cultures, and ideas facilitated the discovery of professional fields I am passionate about: nonprofit and policy work. For many of my peers who took a chance with a major others said was not "practical" we found transformative experiences through interesting schoolwork, internships, and volunteer work which culminated in the desire and the skills to make a difference.

Hence that in my newly graduated class of 633 students, programs like the Peace Corps, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and Teach for America will find Stonehill graduates from the class of 2013 within their ranks. The Stonehill Extension program will send students to teach in the Dominican Republic and India as well as to a brand new program in Brockton, where I will work as an assistant community organizer with the Brockton Interfaith Community. Overall, approximately 45 students from the Stonehill Class of 2013 will participate in domestic and international volunteer service over this next year. Many of my classmates have gone on to pursue other fields that involve the public good: allied health, entrepreneurship, and education. Did our liberal arts education factor as the sole motivator for such strong participation in these programs and career paths? Certainly not, but when you spend four years exposed to intersecting disciplines, subjects that challenge your intellectual comfort zone, and classroom time outside your own community, the need for action on countless domestic and international issues becomes too visible to ignore and the motivation to actually do something about them grows exponentially.

Four years, hundreds of papers, and some sleepless nights later, I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and Political Science. What am I going to do with it? For a year, I'll be an assistant community organizer. Hopefully I can continue to build a career devoted to serving others. My liberal arts education has given me not just the confidence that I have skills applicable to a wide variety of professional disciplines, but also an understanding that the world is bigger than just me and my paycheck and that perhaps, just perhaps, a career well spent is one giving back.