Schools that prepare students for a meaningful life
Neuroscience tells us that late adolescence is a period of intense personal development, making the college years among the most influential times of our lives. For institutions where students live and study, this can be either an undue burden or a remarkable opportunity.
Bates College and Olin College of Engineering are two schools that are choosing the latter, and designing student experiences that intentionally promote identity, agency, and purpose.
On paper, the colleges don’t appear to have much in common, except perhaps that they both play past their stereotypes. One is a liberal arts school that prioritizes preparing students for life and work; the other is an engineering school with a paradigm for learning borrowed from the arts.
The leaders of Bates and Olin—presidents Clayton Spencer and Richard Miller—see a connection between a student’s ability to find meaning, and his or her mental health and wellbeing.
They see meaning as an alignment of self and purpose, and, as an extension, career. They see college as a period of self-discovery where that alignment can begin to form.
Both presidents’ approaches appear deeply influenced by their own learning. The experts they cite range from Erik Eisenberg to Howard Gardner to Angela Duckworth. They, and a host of other like-minded leaders, are working together to scale their best ideas and share them with other institutions. At a time when young adult mental health has become a societal concern, their experiences are particularly relevant.
Bates President Clayton Spencer calls college a time of “deconstruction.”
She tells her incoming students, “You’ve gotten through the eye of the needle into an excellent school. Now is the time to figure out who you are and how you want to move through the world.”
According to Spencer, this involves “unmasking” norms and identities students come to college with. Higher education, she believes, needs to be imaginative enough to design opportunities for students to take risks in order to find themselves.
When it comes to using the self-discovery process to improve mental health and wellness, Bates’ Dean of Students and Vice President of Campus Life, Joshua Mcintosh, is all in.
“One of the things we are seeing is that students are craving reflection, introspection, and connection,” he said.
At Bates, there are many ways to connect based on a health and wellbeing strategy that offers multiple entry points along eight dimensions of wellness. Developed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the wellness categories span areas such as spiritual, physical, and intellectual wellness, in addition to behavioral health.
Bates tracks these dimensions to multiple campus resources including, but not limited to, counseling and psychological services (CAPS).
The strategy intentionally avoids limiting student health and wellness to any one department, and reflects the “upstream” approach espoused by both Mcintosh and Spencer.
“I have found in my time in higher ed that so much of our efforts in student mental health is spent in a reactionary mode,” Mcintosh said. “How are we paying attention to the front end of this where issues can be acknowledged and addressed early on?”
Bates is experiencing the same increase in demand for mental health services as most colleges and universities but Mcintosh says the “several points of entry” strategy has kept at bay the onerous wait times most colleges are experiencing.
He worries, however, that this will come if more attention is not paid to the front end which, for now, keeps some of the pressure off of CAPS to serve students that could be helped in other ways.
McIntosh admits that having broadly defined ownership for wellness makes coordination, communication, and collaboration a bit more challenging for some. With an enrollment of about 1,800, the vast majority of whom live on campus, Bates has an advantage in terms of scale and culture.
His boss agrees. Spencer credits McIntosh with doing the hard work it takes to bring faculty and staff together around wellness goals, and believes Bates is the perfect environment to enable this type of approach.
“Liberal arts is all about connecting,” she said. “Connecting the dots across different fields of knowledge, across differences among people, across the dimensions of your own experience and across your lifetime. It is a mindset.”
One thing the liberal arts has not been about is formal career development, which has traditionally been seen as sullying the purity of the pedagogy. Bates began to differentiate itself in this regard beginning eight years ago, when it made thinking seriously about work a key pillar of its culture.
This was in part to meet the expectations of students and parents after the great recession of 2008-09 and in part because Spencer identified a philosophical bridge between the school’s holistic approach to student development and one’s life work. She took the SAMSHA dimension of occupational wellbeing to a whole new level when she created “Purposeful Work.”
“I see career as a deep and powerful category for building meaning, and I see meaning as fundamental to happiness,” she said.
Purposeful work is a purpose-focused student experience that combines curricular infusion models, practitioner-taught courses, internships, and job shadowing to allow students to identify the kind of work that brings them meaning.
It begins on day one and continues until graduation and beyond, as it involves alumni returning to campus to teach and/or share their experiences.
Spencer says purposeful work is about alignment—aligning your work with your interests, strengths, and values to identify what brings you meaning. The process is both philosophical and practical. She says that knowing yourself in your work gives you the agency you need to maneuver through increasingly fluid career scenarios where you may need to pivot to new jobs not yet imagined.
“Given the velocity of change in work and the global competition for talent, careers will not be externally defined,” she said. “What you need is intel inside.”
Spencer believes that Purposeful Work builds that capacity though experiences that give students the self-awareness and the habits of mind to be agents of their own future. Students are encouraged to discover and develop their sense of self through trial and error involving strategies that break from, or at least push the limits of, traditional higher ed structures.
Through the Purposeful Work infusion project, faculty weave meaning, purpose, work, and careers into their classroom discussion and writing assignments. Practitioners in a wide variety of disciplines teach credit-bearing courses during Bates’ one-month intensive “short term” in the spring. And Bates spends more than $350,000 per year funding summer internships so these are not limited to students with large family networks or the ability to subsidize them.
Spencer, who is a lawyer and former policymaker, is quick to point to the evidence for such a program. She quotes philosophers who have long made the connection between purpose in work and life, and cites data such as Gallop’s wellbeing index that identifies work wellbeing as among “the currency of a life that matters.”
In 2018, Bates partnered with Gallop to conduct a nationally representative poll, whose results affirmed the core principles of Purposeful Work and provided direction for other schools interested in following this path.
The report, “Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work: The Role of Higher Education,” surveyed alumni from colleges and universities across the country and found that “graduates who align their work with interests, values, and strengths are roughly three times more likely to experience high purpose in work.” The study also found that graduates with high purpose in work are almost 10 times more likely to have high overall wellbeing.
The report goes on to define the experiences in college that have the strongest relationship to graduates’ achieving these high levels of purpose: an internship that allowed them to apply what they learned in the classroom; someone who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams; and participating in a class or program that helped them think about looking for meaning in their work.
In addition to the data on Purposeful Work, Bates has real-life examples, such as alumna-Rebeccah Bassell. The 2016 Bates graduate was a Rhetoric and Composition major with a double minor in Philosophy and US History.
After interning within the video games industry, she went on to become an Associate Producer at Nickelodeon for their mobile games and apps.
“When I look back at my story, I can see clearly the path that I took to where I am now,” Bassell said. “I can look and say ‘because I did that, I was able to do that, and then that got me to here.’”
Bassell says this was not always the case.
When she first came to Bates, she “panicked” because her longstanding passion for technology, which included an interest to work someday in video gaming, did not match up with the classes she was taking.
“I wasn’t even a computer science major,” she said.
The school was just starting Purposeful Work, and Rebeccah said it was perfect timing. She took a digital innovation class taught by a Bates alumni.
When it was time to apply for a Purposeful Work internship, she had enough working knowledge of the industry to gain a spot at an educational game design firm in New York City. She returned to New York after graduation and has been at Nickelodeon for three and a half years.
Bassell says it wasn’t necessarily the skill-building aspect of Purposeful Work that got her where she is today, but the confidence she built from the self-reflection process.
“Purposeful Work forces you to think about why you’re working on a skill set, which is a departure from the rhetoric most young people hear in their job search,” she said. “Instead of us always hearing ‘Do it this way—Get that job,’ we were asked, ‘What are your strengths? What do you struggle with?”
Bassell says the process made her an empowered, knowledge-ready candidate, which she believes is what today’s employers are looking for in young people.
“I found that my bosses weren’t really that concerned about having all the right skills,” she said. “It was more about ‘so how would you solve this problem?’”
Bassell is ready to make her next career move, this time out west. The new job in Denver fulfills a number of her goals, including her interest to work more collaboratively and her desire to be closer to nature, which she says is good for her mental health.
“If I’m going to be doing something every day of my life, I want that activity to align with my own personal values—from the work that I’m doing to the environment that I’m in. If it is not, then I know there is another place that will.”
Olin College of Engineering
At Olin College of Engineering, building things that change the world is the aim of learning—not the result of it.
Throughout its first 17 years, Olin president Richard (Rick) Miller molded the small school into an international model for engineering transformation long sought-after by both science and industry.
The percentage of Olin alumni-founded start-ups surpasses its peers on both coasts, fueled by an approach to learning that has a strong emphasis on the arts, humanities, and social sciences, in addition to entrepreneurship and design.
“Olin is different in so many dimensions,” said Miller who will retire as president this spring.
Founded in 2002 by the Olin Foundation, the college was built from scratch in Needham, Massachusetts, a suburb outside of Boston. It was designed to be a clean slate for engineering innovation that was not realized by previous attempts to modernize the field. With an acknowledgement that traditional engineering’s rote learning methods aimed only at right-brain students was limiting on many levels, Miller set out to forge a fresh start.
Miller, an engineer, had been the Dean of the Engineering at the University of Iowa.
He had his own hypothesis that what really matters in engineering is the breakthrough learning that comes from the trial and error of building things—not the course work in math and science that is required years before that occurs.
Before they opened the school, Miller and his team did what engineers do and conducted an experiment. They brought in 15 boys and 15 girls—recent high school graduates—who lived for a year in temporary dorms in the parking lot while the campus was being built.
The students weren’t taking courses, they were learning how to learn. And so were Miller and his leadership team.
They gave the students a challenge: to design, build, and demonstrate a pulse oximeter in the course of six weeks.
As Miller recalls, “The students said, ‘Ok, what’s that?,’ So we explained to them that it is a medical instrument used to take pulse and oxygen content from a person without using a needle. They said, ‘Cool, how do we learn about that?’ We said, ‘Why don’t you take a look at the patent literature and see what the inventor says about it. And, by the way, we’ve never built one so don’t ask us.’”
The team anticipated the students would ultimately fail but believed it would be a good lesson in design thinking—what happens when you get it right, and what happens when you get it wrong—which now permeates the school’s teaching philosophy.
Miller says what ended up happening surprised them all.
“They actually built the thing,” he said. “We brought in the hospital model and put them side by side and they were identical. At that point, we said to ourselves, ‘Apparently you don’t need two years of calculus and physics to make stuff.’”
What was most remarkable for Miller was the impact the experience had on the students themselves who, he said, “felt two feet taller.”
“Suddenly, these teenagers were like, ‘Wow, if we can get kids like us together, get some old people to help us once in a while, we can build anything. We can change the world.”
The school has since worked off of the assumption that students are far more capable than educators think they are of learning on their own—and from each other.
This realization became the foundation for Olin’s project-based “do-learn” model, where students work in teams to solve real-world problems. These tend to start with questions like, How is what I’m doing going to change someone’s life?
To give students context for their learning, Olin humanizes the narrative of engineering and makes inventions more about people than patents. Professors of entirely different disciplines and degrees work in teams to bring multi-dimensional perspectives to the instruction.
Students are encouraged to work across disciplines and to try out different curricula.
By the time Olin students graduate they have full repertoires of work, and some have even started businesses. Since 2010, nearly 900 schools from around the world have visited Olin to understand how to replicate the model.
The interest validates what the F. W. Olin Foundation set out to do in launching the experimental school, but Miller believes Olin’s secret sauce should be shared by more than just STEM institutions. Its impact on students, he says, can be transformational.
According to Miller, Olin College’s grand experiment in engineering is really not about engineering at all—but rather about using design thinking and intrinsic motivation to engender identity, agency, and purpose in its students.
Miller believes its approach could be the antidote for a host of problems in higher education, including the escalating rates of mental health issues in college students.
While design learning provides students with the responsibility to create and design an outcome, intrinsic motivation—like in Spencer’s model—aligns their efforts with purpose.
“Wellbeing has a lot to do with passion and perseverance, and fundamentally, you’re much more passionate and willing to persevere on things that you care about than you don’t,” Miller said.
Empathy also plays a big role. Human connection, Miller says, is critical to wellbeing, the absence of which he believes is at the crux of the young adult mental health crisis. (He blames a lot of this on social media and, as a technology person, feels the guilt of that.)
Beyond the benefits of connection, taking responsibility for the condition of other people is incredibly empowering.
“I think our model could change everything,” he said. “Instead of feeling overwhelmed and alone in the world, being obsessed with how many likes you have, or whether you’re going to get a high-paying job, you can say to yourself, ‘There are 20 groups of people whose lives I have already changed through the work that I have done here.’ That is amazing.”
But to scale this approach in the way Miller hopes, institutions will have to be willing to disrupt the “sacred cows” of higher education, an exercise he clearly believes is critical to the academy’s future.
On that score, the outgoing president has a blueprint for change that involves four principles of learning.
“The first,” he said “is only learn things that matter, that matter to you, to someone you care about, or to society as a whole. Second, only learn things in context, so that it means something to you in the real world. The third is only learn in teams. And the fourth is, envision how to make a better world.”
Miller admits that’s a lot of cows, from faculty tenure criteria to the structure of academic departments to the prerequisite of declaring majors.
But Miller is hopeful that seeing the type of graduates Olin “builds” will convince other schools to change, or at least examine the value of their current approaches.
Charleen (Char) Laughlin is a great example. Currently a cyber policy analyst for the Department of Defense, the 2007 Olin graduate had previously worked as a systems engineer for the Missile Defense Agency, charged with protecting America and its allies against weapons of mass destruction, and United States Air Force.
What she learned from her engineering education, particularly studying systems engineering, has prepared her to address, arguably, some of the biggest problems in the world.
“Systems engineering is a discipline that allows you to take very complex problems and break them down into smaller components,” she said. “It includes a rigorous process where you define, design and then test requirements for whatever system you’re trying to build whether it’s an iPhone or a complex weapons system.”
Laughlin tracks the framework for this method back to what she learned at Olin in a class called “User Oriented Collaborative Design” where students spend time with users, understanding “pain points” and responding to specific challenges.
Laughlin says it’s a method that transfers to any discipline.
She describes herself as “an engineer turned policy analyst” and says Olin alumni pursue a variety of different professions, including, but not limited to, engineering.
“When I was at Olin, many of my classmates wanted to be lawyers or doctors or various types of entrepreneurs,” she said. “I think what we all sought to do at the end of the day was to solve problems.”
On to Something
Miller’s vision to apply the experiences of Olin College to the transformation of higher education brings him full circle, as the banner he put above Olin’s library reminds us: “Engineers envision what has never been done and do whatever it takes to make it happen.”
Fueled by this spirit, Miller and Spencer are now working alongside other higher ed leaders to understand how institutions of different profiles can learn from and adopt some of these principles.
Helping them develop the framework for this concept is Brandon Busteed, now president of Kaplan University Partners and the man behind The 2014 Gallup—Purdue Index Report – the widely-recognized study of work/life outcomes that showed it wasn’t where you went to college that impacted your career and wellbeing, but rather how you did.
Created by researchers Busteed says are famous for measuring the hard-to-measure, the index was a way to understand graduates’ work and life satisfaction based on the experiences they had in college.
These included many of the components that now exist at schools like Bates and Olin. The index found that having a meaningful mentoring relationship and an internship where you applied what you were learning in the classroom doubled your odds of being engaged in your work and thriving later on.
Busteed believes the groundbreaking work that Spencer, Miller, and others are doing on the student experience comes at a time when higher education is dealing with the confluence of two major threats: students who seem either in despair or unprepared; and public opinion questioning the value of a college degree.
“What distinguishes the college experience from other options for young adults is that it can be absolutely magical when it works,” he said. “So we need to understand what makes it magical and work on those elements.”
Busteed says higher education overall is slow to respond to what we’re learning.
“We know that mentoring relationships in college correlate to occupational wellbeing, but only two out of ten graduates report having had a mentor,” he said. “We know that internship experiences are valuable, but when does that happen, and for how many?”
When asked if he believes colleges and universities can become life-transforming institutions, Busteed said they can, and must – if they want to back up what they claim.
“On every college web site, in every president’s address, we get messages about developing meaning, purpose and life-long learning in students,” he said.
“Schools need to be demonstrating how they’re doing this and that’s going to involve some big changes.”