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Posted at 6:10 PM ET, 03/ 3/2010

Linking college academics to careers

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Rick Cherwitz, a professor of communication and the founder and director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Consortium in the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

By Rick Cherwitz
With tuition rising, many are concerned with containing the cost of higher education. But as important as this is, we also need to focus on how to capitalize on the knowledge purchased with tuition dollars.

Many undergraduates are uncertain about academic disciplines. Hundreds of specialized possibilities often make little sense. They appear to have limited connection to students’ interests and professional goals.

Professional development comes too late, when soon-to-be graduates seek employment. These career services are not only separate from academic work but frequently tend to be viewed as secondary to scholarship and study.

As a result, many students leave school without fully tapping their interests and aptitudes and without appreciating how their academic knowledge is connected to their future careers and to the broader goal of solving societal problems.

What is needed is an entrepreneurial laboratory where students discover how their interests might serve as a compass for navigating the university, how academic knowledge equips them to make a difference, and how education prepares one to live a meaningful life.

Consider a model offered at the University of Texas at Austin: the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate School Internship.

More than 800 students have had the chance to work with veteran graduate students to determine whether they should pursue advanced study. They become empowered to own their education and to leverage knowledge for social good — to be "citizen scholars."

Interns — most of whom are upper classmen — continually ask why the Pre-Grad Internship was one of few student-centered experiences, often their only chance in college to assess the value and usefulness of what they were learning.

Why not provide a similar incubator — an Intellectual Entrepreneurship academic/community mentorship — to students at the beginning of their college tenures, permitting them to discover the relevance of academic disciplines and devise a thoughtful plan of academic study?

The mentorship program could extend the already successful Pre-Graduate School Internship. With graduate student mentors and community sponsors, freshmen and sophomores would work simultaneously inside and outside the university, ascertaining the perspectives of different fields of study and unearthing links between academic concentrations and their passions and career aspirations.

This would not be job training but, instead, what a colleague of mine calls “core-strengthening”—something at the heart of the humanistic mission of colleges and universities.

It would be a rigorous exercise; students would study and reflect upon their discipline. Rather than defaulting to a particular major, they would learn about the many available options. Exploration would culminate in students designing an entrepreneurial plan for their academic and post-academic careers. They then could meaningfully pick a specialized major and weave together a tapestry of courses across the curriculum, defining and linking their academic and professional identities.

The mentorship program might reduce the time and cost of earning a degree. By providing students greater agency in their education, the program could shift the model of education from one of apprenticeship, certification and entitlement to one of discovery, ownership and accountability.

By demystifying education and forging connections between academe and society, the program also would significantly enhance the education of first-generation and under-represented minority students. This effect already is well-documented by the program's educational philosophy and Pre-Grad Internship (which since 2003 has enrolled a disproportionately higher percentage of under-represented and first-generation students).

In addition, the academic/community mentorship would introduce a unique interdisciplinary learning laboratory, one that begins with students’ interests rather than predetermined topics chosen in advance by faculty and administrators. That prospect could stimulate student curiosity and increase engaged learning.

Finally, the mentorship program would afford valuable professional development for graduate students, permitting these future professors to acquire effective mentoring habits, enhance their marketability, and assist universities in forging long overdue connections between undergraduate and graduate education.

In essence, the mentorship could help change the academic culture by educating a more enlightened generation of future academics.

Rising tuition is inevitable. So let’s maximize the enormous value of college education.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 3, 2010; 6:10 PM ET
Categories:  Higher Education  | Tags:  academic/community mentorship, higher education, university of texas at austin  
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Perhaps if students could make time in their high school schedule to pursue a few Career and Technical Education courses they might gain a better insight to their interests and aptitudes before they even begin college.

However a number of factors including budget cuts and a push by many states to increase "core curriculum" requirements are making it difficult for many secondary schools to continue offering a good variety of CTE courses.

Posted by: MisterRog | March 3, 2010 6:27 PM | Report abuse

The Intellectual Entrepreneurship academic/community mentorship described by Dr Cherwitz should be implemented at colleges and universities across the nation.

The idea is based on a current program that successfully serves Latino students, whom colleges must make a priority seeing as they represent the fastest growing segment of our population and are inextricably linked to the future success of our country.

In 2008, my organization Excelencia in Education ( presented the IE Pre-Graduate School Internship Program with an award for its work in successfully bringing a new population of Latino and first-generation students into the graduate school pipeline at the University of Texas.

Much of today's higher education reform discussion emphasizes student deficits and remedial education, but this program builds on students' strengths and focuses on demystifying the pursuit of higher education, stimulating student curiosity, and increasing engaged learning. It's a model that works and it is time for other colleges and universities to adapt it.

Posted by: EdExcelencia | March 8, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

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