Rethinking Prepared

By Emily Carpenter posted 21 days ago


Can I think through something with you all? There’s this word in our field that we all hear so often that it may have lost its meaning, but ever since last summer, it’s been pestering me. 

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This nagging word is prepared––past tense. Our students need to be prepared. Employers want employees who are prepared. Tuition dollars should lead to prepared graduates.

So I’ve been thinking about prepared. Prepared. Prepared. Prepared. Doesn’t that usually mean done and equipped for use? Finished. Got everything you need. 

Is that what we really want?  

Those who know me most likely wouldn’t say that I’m overly organized, but I am someone who believes in the power of due diligence. I like the idea of being prepared. I read the books. I do the homework. I make the PowerPoint. And yet, when it comes to the big things in my life, I have found that this has not necessarily led me to be prepared. Was I prepared to be a spouse when I got married? To be a homeowner when I bought a house? And my personal favorite, did all those baby classes, books, and carefully researched car seats and strollers and monitors make me feel prepared when I became a parent? 

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Ha. Parents of the world, laugh with me. I was not prepared. In fact, I felt frustrated and confused that I had done what I was supposed to do and yet this adorable little eight-pound creature often brought me to my knees.

That’s when I began wondering if we’ve gotten so used to this expectation of “prepared” that we might be setting up our students for frustration and confusion as well. And maybe employers, too? 

The 2018 AAC&U report (Fulfilling the American Dream) states that only 60 percent of hiring managers believe that most recent graduates have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in entry-level positions (and that’s an improvement from earlier studies). Additionally, only 25 percent of hiring managers say that most recent graduates have the necessary skills and knowledge to advance or get promoted. Here’s where I think we need to pause and ask a question (or two). Do employers have similar expectations of what prepared looks like, or are we all aiming at a moving target? Is there some learning and growing that we hope to see happen after graduation?   

Back in the fall semester, we hosted an employer focus group on our campus. We asked the typical questions:  What skills are you are most seeking? Where are graduates lacking?  We had a funny moment where we discussed leadership. The employers agreed that they want leadership skills, but that didn’t mean they wanted 22-year-olds to come in claiming to be leaders and asking to be in charge (and I realize that the leadership gurus in our group are thinking, “Leadership doesn’t mean bossy,” but the majority of our employers still fear that’s the case). One recruiting manager said, “Actually, I want someone hungry to learn––someone curious, hard-working, and able to connect the dots as they go.” 

That manager’s statement was both totally expected and revealing in this context. That’s when I realized, maybe it’s really not possible to be totally prepared (past tense) for the big things, and maybe we should stop making that the goal. But then, what should the goal be? And how do we help our students prepare (present tense!) for that goal? 

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Well, I don’t think it means that we should eschew responsibility. Just because we can’t be truly prepared, it doesn’t mean we just throw caution to the wind and wing everything. I think the important thing is to engage in the act of preparation. Present tense. Ready to begin, but not under the assumption that we will have it all down or that there will be a point where we should know it all. T

The goal is not “finished and done” but an accumulation of a wide variety of tools in the toolbox and the knowledge and confidence to use and apply them. And we need to embrace the idea that we’ll always be gathering tools.   

What about the second part? What’s our role as educators? Given these realizations, how do we help students get ready? Should we change how we do things? How do you help students get ready for something dynamic and shifting?  (Full disclosure: I think this part is extra exciting.) 

In thinking this through, I went back to my earlier examples. How did I figure out how to be a parent? Um … well, I still haven’t figured it out! But the best preparation thus far has been throwing myself into the act of being a parent.  Learning by doing. When baby #2 came along, it was still challenging, but I wasn’t as confused and frustrated. I knew things would keep changing and I would grow and learn right along with this new little guy.  

I believe we can translate this kind of learning to our students as they move through our institutions and figure out what’s next. As educators, we can figure out a way to “do real life” within the college experience, but with a built-in safety net. We can teach students to reflect and learn from experience, to synthesize and translate learning to other settings, as a built-in part of the process. The good news here is that means our focus on experiential education is really important if we’re rethinking preparation. 

Our work should be experientially focused and experientially driven. 

How do we know if we’re doing this well? How might we measure it? I definitely would love to talk more with anyone else who is thinking about this idea!  It’s not easy, and I certainly haven’t figured it all out. But it is important, because if you’re throwing traditional “prepared” out the window and doing new things and asking for resources, you need data and outcomes. We can point to research and work that’s already been done and then find ways to create those conditions on our own campuses. For instance, if we know from Gallup-Purdue research that specific kinds of student engagement are more likely to lead to engaged employees, we can work to engage our students in these ways and measure overall engagement. 

We also know that students whose college experience included rich relationships and work-integrated experiences are more likely to say their education was worth it. So we can ensure that happens (and happens at a high quality) and gauge how often that’s happening. I think we can aim high and holistically, but also still measure the traditional and less sexy (retention, grad rates, and outcomes for students engaging with us).  They both matter.  It’s a false dichotomy when we talk about whether college should be focused on job training or lifelong learning (they need to both happen and I think there’s a lot of mutually reinforcing overlap, particularly as we head into the future). I don’t think there’s anything particularly utopian about wanting to pay your bills, and it’s hard to pursue your life’s work if you can’t pay back your student loans. Given the cost of a college education and how fast the world of work is changing, I think we’re foolish if we don’t talk about it. 

As I wrap up, I want to go back to that AAC&U report I mentioned at the beginning: only a quarter of executives believe recent grads have the skills for promotion. The more I think about that in light of these other ideas, the more it seems like a funny question: How do you know if you would promote someone you’ve just hired?  How can you possibly be ready for your second job before you’ve had your first job? Don’t we want them to learn something while they are in that first job? I think there’s an underlying message that teaching students the skills to get a first job is not the same as teaching them the competencies to navigate a career. And again, I think we need to do both, but we won’t do either of them well if we don’t think about preparation in a different way. 

I’m not sure if you can ever be fully prepared (past tense), but if we want to help our students by engaging in preparation (present tense) for their life’s work, we definitely need to champion experiential education. It will give them the short-term skills for a first job, but it’s also a natural way to build in long-term competencies like humility, agility, a growth mentality, resilience, curiosity––those competencies that are going to be just as important (maybe more so) than how to do pivot tables on a spreadsheet or utilize Google adwords. Those long-term skills are the building blocks of promotion. And honestly, in my own moments of experiential learning and “unpreparedness,” I have found great comfort and possibility in realizing “I don’t got it” and then being open to learning.

I really like the idea that we, as educators, take this on in our own lives and with our teams. We will be living in the house while we’re still building the house. It gives us freedom to move forward without total expertise but with some compassion for when things don’t go as planned––how can they, when you’re still building? We don’t shoot for finished and done––we aim for learning and growing.