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December 11, 2017
Focus: HR / Recruitment

Purposeful Work: Bates College prepares students for work that fits their skills and interests

Photo / Courtesy Bates College
Photo / Courtesy Bates College
Bates College President Clayton Spencer leads a discussion with students from Kalperis Hall. Spencer, the college's eighth president in its 162-year-old history, set the college on the path of redefining its liberal arts mission with its Purposeful Work program that guides students over their four years at the college into thinking deeply about how work enables them to contribute to 'larger purposes' than just themselves.
Graphic / Courtesy Bates College
Photo / Courtesy Bates College
Danielle Fournier, Class of 2018, whose family lives in Sugar Land, Texas, near Houston, used two summer internships to hone her general interest in economics into the field of analytics.
Photo / Courtesy Bates College
Alyssa Frost,18 of Boxford, Mass. and Avery Margerum,18 of Wyncote, Pa., pose with a poster for the TournČes Film Festival, starting Oct. 30. As members of the Francophone Club, Frost and Margerum helped organize the festival.
Photo / Courtesy Bates College
Rebecca Fraser-Thill is director of faculty engagement and outreach for Bates College’s Purposeful Work initiative.

A focus on veterans' issues and immigration

For Alyssa Frost, a senior majoring in politics with a minor in French and Francophone studies, that's exactly what working at the Portland office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, did for her as she pitched in doing hands-on casework and responding to constituent inquiries.

Much of her work focused on veterans' issues and immigration. The big issue of the summer was the lengthy delay in processing work visas for foreign workers through the federal H-2B visa program that created labor shortages at restaurants and hospitality-related businesses in Maine and across the country.

"I saw how that had ramifications all across Maine," she says, noting that her constituent work on that issue including meetings with the Maine Innkeepers Association. Her French-speaking skills proved useful in working with refugees from Burundi, Somalia and Iraq.

"I never thought I'd stay in Maine, now I've done a 180," she says. "Getting to know Maine and its people helped me realize just how important grassroots change is. I feel like I can be part of that. It's so much more tangible here in Maine. You feel like, 'I can do this.' I'm so grateful the Purposeful Work internship has provided me the opportunity to realize that. Staying up here after graduation is not something I anticipated at all."

A valuable internship in Maine

Danielle Fournier, a senior majoring in economics, is from Sugar Land, Texas, just out of Houston. She interned at UNUM in Portland during the summer of 2016.

"I wanted to work for a Fortune 500 company and I wanted to stay in Maine," she says "I knew I was interested in data and analytics. I wanted to understand the internal workings of a big company."

Her UNUM internship gave her the opportunity to do just that, as she worked with a UNUM team that was assessing the company's internal systems and communications to make sure they were working smoothly. She conducted informational interviews with employees to gain what she describes as more of a "ground view" of UNUM's operations.

"I was the only intern on the team," she says. "The next youngest person on the team was in their mid-40s. I was the fresh set of eyes on the team."

As insightful and meaningful as her internship at UNUM proved to be, Fournier says she learned something about herself that led her to seek out a different kind of internship this past summer, this time working at a smaller insurance company doing analytics.

"It definitely wasn't a waste for me to intern there," she says of the UNUM experience. "The learning experiences of working with a large company and all the technical skills I gained working at UNUM really helped me figure out the type of jobs I want to pursue after I graduate. It just wasn't the right fit for my skill-set."

Rebecca Fraser-Thill, director of faculty engagement and outreach for Purposeful Work, says the program encourages students to be reflective about their experiences and to realize that their life's journey isn't likely to be a straight path.

"We tell our students you need to be resilient, to be reflective, to be able to create a life that is conscious and aware," she says. "Frustration, oftentimes, is the starting point of creativity. That's one thing we've seen through this Purposeful Work initiative: Students appreciate what they're learning when the stakes are real."

She adds: "If that next step in their journey involves choosing to stay in Maine, all the better. They've already picked Maine when they chose to come to Bates. We're hoping to give them another reason to stay here."

Like most of his peers who will graduate this coming spring, Bates College senior Reed Mszar is thinking a lot about his future. He's pursued a double major in biochemistry and sociology, largely because of his keen interest in public health.

Thanks to the college's Purposeful Work initiative, which got a strong jump-start in October 2013 with a Catalyst Fund gift of $11.5 million from current and past members of the college's trustees, Mszar has two years of paid summer internships in health care under his belt to guide him on the next stages of his life's journey after graduation.

"I saw several open-heart surgeries," he says of his internship two years ago at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston. He also had several work assignments that "helped narrow the scope" of his medical interests into the arena known as "public health," which focuses on preventing disease and promoting health through research and education.

This past summer he explored that inkling more deeply, again with a paid internship, this time as a medical researcher at the National Institutes of Health in Bethseda, Md. He's now working on his senior thesis, a research project he's doing in collaboration with a colleague at CMMC. It's about a genetic condition known as familial hypercholesterolemia that disproportionately affects Franco-Americans in Lewiston-Auburn. If untreated, it can lead to high levels of LDL, the so-called "bad" cholesterol, and contribute to early heart attacks and strokes.

Mszar — who grew up in the greater Washington, D.C-area and picked Bates because, in his words, "I saw I wouldn't be just a number here" — credits the Purposeful Work initiative with helping him discern the aspects of health care that "resonated most" with his personal interests and skills.

"These combined experiences have given me the confidence to know that after Bates I can help improve health outcomes in the community," he says.

Two years in the making

Bates College's Purposeful Work initiative is redefining the liberal arts mission of the 162-year-old college, broadening it to include employers in Maine and elsewhere as partners in helping students discover how "work" — the activity that will fill most of their adult hours — goes far beyond simply collecting a paycheck.

"College has always been about preparing our students for life and work," says Bates College President Clayton Spencer, the college's eighth president, who arrived in 2012 after serving 15 years at Harvard University in various executive positions. "That used to be fairly straightforward in the 20th century. In the 21st century, for a variety of reasons, it's not enough to go to college simply to get a degree."

Although Spencer set out from the start of her administration to put "work" at the heart of the college's liberal arts mission, the college didn't rush into making it happen overnight.

Faculty and staff spent almost two years thinking about "purposeful work" and how it could become a focal point for a comprehensive four-year program that would guide Bates students thoughtfully as they begin to connect the dots between the questions "What am I interested in? What am I good at?" and the overarching one of "How do I contribute to purposes larger than myself?" The design team built on existing Bates programs and vetted similar initiatives already in place at other colleges and universities.

More than just an internship program

Rebecca Fraser-Thill, a lecturer in Bates' psychology department who serves as director of faculty engagement and outreach for Purposeful Work, was part of the design team that spent 14 months getting the program ready for its 2014 launch.

One of its distinguishing characteristics, she says, is the way it interweaves questions about work, identity and purpose into the college's curriculum and co-curricular programs. Paid internships, she says, are only one part of the initiative.

Other elements include:

  • Practitioner-taught courses, in which accomplished Bates alumni teach applied knowledge and skills in their field of expertise, typically areas that are outside the core liberal arts curriculum. This year's courses include digital marketing, startup project management, mediation and restorative justice, health care administration and the business of the arts.
  • Infusion courses, in which faculty members explicitly connect course content to discussions of meaning, purpose, work and/or careers. Over 25% of the Bates faculty have infused courses with discussions, readings, reflective writing assignments, and guest speakers or other activities since the project began in 2014.
  • Purposeful Work Unplugged, a co-curricular series of Q&As with notable alumni, friends, faculty, and staff about career trajectories and the traits that support meaningful work. Past speakers have shared stories about successes, failures, decision moments and pivot moments in fields as diverse as technology, government and making chocolate.
  • Career counseling and online modules are also available through the college's career development center to help students hone their internship applications and post-graduation job searches.

The infusion courses, Fraser-Thill says, are particularly effective in stimulating students to think more deeply about their interests and skills and the kind of work they might find to be fulfilling.

"A pathway opens up," she says. "Then they try that pathway in the next summer's internship program and see where that takes them. You can't predict where that's going to lead the student … You might have a student realizing she wants to run for office who previously thought of herself as an introvert."

A growing group of 'core employers'

Spencer says her goal is to have paid internships for 500 students a summer. This past summer, she notes, Bates students were placed in 340 internships, not all of them tied to the Purposeful Work program. Funding of internships, she says, can be provided by the employers themselves, by the college or by some combination of both.

Spencer says Bates received a $250,000 grant from the Libra Foundation, which will be disbursed at $50,000 per year from 2017 to 2021. It supported 13 internships in Maine this past summer.

"It's a great program; it's clear they have put of lot of thought into it," says Erik Hayward, senior vice president of the Portland-based private foundation whose mission is to support initiatives that "enrich Maine, empower communities and enhance the quality of life of all Maine citizens."

Hayward says Libra ran an internship program of its own for 10 years and regards paid internships as a great way of "fostering a young and dynamic workforce" — all the better, he adds, if some of those interns, whether from in- or out-of-state, end up choosing to live and work in Maine after graduation.

The college has more than 75 "core employers" in Maine, nationally and even abroad, who've agreed to be listed as available for Purposeful Work internships.

Internships pay dividends for both students and employers

Follow-up surveys that Bates College conducted with employers show 97% felt their Purposeful Work intern "added value to the their organization"; 91% said the intern would be "a competitive candidate for a full-time post-graduation job if one were to exist."

Those findings are mirrored in similar surveys done with students who've interned: Of the 2,184 students who've participated in at least one Purposeful Work experience (including 90% of the Class of 2018), 89% said their internship deepened their skills; 89% said it refined their career interests; 87% said it made them a more competitive candidate for their next career move; and 79% said it will help build their professional network.

Liz Hall, development director for the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, says the Portland-based nonprofit has hired four Purposeful Work interns since 2013, and another Bates student in a separate internship. "You are able to recruit great talent," she says. "We are super grateful for the program. It's helped us get a substantial amount of work done that might not have been possible otherwise."

Hall says the internships are designed to give students experiences in advocacy work, putting on bike-safety demonstrations, compiling and analyzing survey data and helping with the coalition's summertime events like the annual Maine Lobster Ride. "We feel it's important for them to understand how multi-faceted you need to be if you're working for a nonprofit," she says.

Colleen Ippolito, director of human resources at CEI, says the Bates interns who've worked at the Brunswick-based economic and community development nonprofit have been "high-performers" who were able to seamlessly take on assignments as diverse as working with CEI's workforce solutions team or analyzing financial data for the finance division.

Like many Maine employers who offer internships, Ippolito says they're both a great recruiting tool and a way of introducing young people to what Maine has to offer.

"Hands down, if we have a position that fits their skills, we're likely to hire them," she says. "We've already vetted them. They've already shown themselves to be hardworking, resourceful … The idea of keeping talented young people in Maine is really critical to the future of our state. I think an internship is a great way of exposing students to Maine. It gives them a chance to evaluate whether they want to stay here."

Looking forward

Bates College's $300 million capital campaign launched in May has already raised $176 million, including a $50 million gift from Michael Bonney, class of 1980 and a retired CEO of Cubist Pharmaceuticals. Of the four priorities to be funded by that campaign, $65 million, or 22% of the overall goal, is to be set aside for programs identified as "catalyzing student success."

Purposeful Work already is making its mark as one of those programs, says Spencer. Achieving the overall $300 million goal, she says, would enable the college to endow the program going forward and maintain its momentum without diverting funds from other college priorities after its start-up funding dries up.

"It's a huge selling point," she says of the program's appeal to would-be donors. "It's looking at the bridge between college and the rest of each student's life. So there is a very natural interest in the program."

Graduating senior Reed Mszar is on the verge of crossing that bridge.

He's pursuing two potential paths following his graduation: A possible Fulbright Fellowship to research refugees' health in Sweden or going to a graduate school that focuses on public health.

Further down the road, he sees medical school as a strong possibility. All those options most likely involve leaving Maine upon graduation.

But Mszar already imagines someday coming back, perhaps to do a residency as part of his med school training. "I definitely think Maine will be part of my future," he says.

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