If you’ve ever been a liberal arts major — be it in English, history or philosophy — you’ve heard it before.

“What are you going to do with that?”

In an era when so many schools are focusing on STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), many students are discouraged from following an interest in subjects that might not be so apparently lucrative.

But the University of Puget Sound is trying to change that perception, while preparing students for a career outside of the barista industry.

The university recently received a $250,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its experiential learning initiative, which “aims to encourage every student to think deeply about how they structure their learning and to build an evidenced portfolio of distinguishing skills, abilities and knowledge that will enhance their success in pursuing fulfilling lives and careers after college,” according to a press release.

While the experiential learning program is made available to all students, including STEM-track students, UPS is careful to emphasize the perceived challenges of liberal arts majors.

“We already know from data that a liberal arts education equips young adults with the interdisciplinary knowledge, creative problem-solving skills and team-building mindset that today’s global and regional companies and organizations seek,” said Ronald Thomas, president of Puget Sound, in a press release.

Kris Bartanen, academic vice president and the person in charge of implementing the experiential learning grant, had more to say over the phone.

“One of the concerns that gets voiced, that is sometimes a little overstated, is that a college degree is no longer valuable and doesn’t prepare people for careers,” she said. “I think we have a lot of strength in our educational program and what we want to do is not change who we are. We are still a liberal arts college. But (we want) to be more intentional about guiding students to the kinds of experiences that allow them to have hands-on experiences.”

The program works in a number of ways.

First, it develops faculty members as advisors to help students take proactive roles in “incorporating appropriate learning experiences into their academic programs.” Faculty advisors will learn how to encourage students to reflect on their experiences and to engage in dialogue with others about their learning.

Bartanen said reflective thinking is a core part of the program.

“The reflective component really makes a difference in distinguishing experiences from experiential learning,” she said. “(It’s about) having faculty be more conscious about talking with students in advance to get them thinking, so most students don’t think ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a senior, what is it that I need to be doing right now?”

Second, the program will expand and strengthen experiential learning opportunities. Essentially, this means putting students out into the field — either abroad internationally, nationally or right here in Tacoma. It includes new pilot “study away” programs in the United States.

The grant will also go toward supporting the Career and Employment Services office in overseeing existing and new learning options, offer students individual e-portfolios, hold a symposium where students showcase their applied learning, enhance the Office of Alumni and Parent Relations to help offer experiential learning alternatives and continue building partnerships with regional businesses, nonprofits and institutions.

Even with the increased focus on STEM-related education, or education that will “create jobs,” Bartanen said UPS does not feel pressured by the public to focus solely on those subjects. Still, she feels that the experiential learning component will help make families feel more confident and comfortable in choosing UPS. 

“We all need to follow through on our value propositions,” she said. “People are making big investments, families are making big investments in a college education. While certainly all our students have scholarships and financial aid, it’s still for many families a big stretch to undertake a college education. We want them to be able to feel that investment is well made.”

“This is an area that, by being intentional, we enable our students to succeed well upon their graduation and be able to continue on their life path. So it’s pretty exciting.”