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All in for liberal Arts

College empowers every student, dean says

Dr. Kristen Majocha calls liberal arts “the beating heart” of any university.

“Our society is focused on technology, and we’re stronger because of it,” she says.

“But if you can’t sell those high-tech products because you don’t write well or speak clearly, if you can’t package those products with graphics and design, if you can’t convince people to buy them, then those products are worthless.

“Speaking. Writing. Promoting and persuading. Understanding the human psyche and expressing yourself — [that’s] what you gain from the liberal arts.”

Majocha was appointed dean of the College of Liberal Arts this summer. She came to California from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where she was the assistant to the vice president of academic affairs and an associate professor in the Communications Department.

She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Duquesne University. But the Slippery Rock alumna was eager to rejoin the State System where, as a first-generation college student, she gained the confidence to pursue an academic career.

“I fit here,” she says of Cal U, just as she and her family – and a pair of goats named Randi and Rusty – fit into their new home in a small, Mon River community.

“The people who live in this area, the first-generation college students and their blue-collar families, their stories make sense to me. This university’s mission makes sense to me. It’s in my bones. I can’t hide who I am.”

MBA student Mohamed Bountoulougou enjoys the music at Manderino Library.

Taking stock

Majocha’s first task as dean has been taking stock of the College of Liberal Arts. Nearly 1,500 students are enrolled as majors in its seven academic departments, and every Cal U student takes liberal arts courses to meet general education requirements.

The dean wants to define the College’s mission and vision – a first step toward making it more visible on campus. And she aims to strengthen the College’s role in empowering all students, no matter their major.

“How can the College of Liberal Arts support our students in [all] academic programs?” she asks. “What minors and certificates do we have in place that can make our students stronger upon graduation?”

Majocha is a fierce advocate for disciplines such as English, history, languages, psychology, music, theater and art.

She concedes that liberal arts graduates are likely to begin their careers with smaller paychecks than their classmates in science and tech. But research shows they catch up quickly, often advancing into management positions.

Several studies have found that five to 10 years after graduation, liberal arts majors typically earn as much or more than their peers with professional degrees.

“There may not be a direct line from a liberal arts student’s major to his or her job title, but the options are wider,” Majocha says.

Junior Bry Stahlman, a graphic design major, hangs a freshly screenprinted shirt to dry.

Guided by values

Emma Harris, a career coach in Cal U’s Career and Professional Development Center, agrees that liberal arts grads are “the most well-rounded as professionals.”

“They communicate well, and that’s the No. 1 skill that employers seek. And they have a strong work ethic, the No. 2 skill that employers are looking for.”

Many liberal arts majors are motivated by their values, Harris adds. “That’s why they choose fields like psychology, sociology or criminal justice – careers where they can give back and make an impact.”

A 2016 article in the [Wall Street Journal] points to a survey of 180 companies conducted by NACE, the National Association of Colleges and Employers. It found that “four of the top five traits (sought by employers) were hallmarks of a traditional liberal arts education: teamwork, clear writing, problem-solving aptitude and strong oral communication.”

Even when they don’t set out to recruit liberal arts majors specifically, NACE reports, employers often hire humanities or social-science graduates because of these strengths.

Dr. Aref Alkhattar, a professor in the Criminal Justice Department, also credits the liberal arts with enhancing cultural awareness.

“American society is diverse, so criminal justice professionals must have an understanding of different cultures and languages,” he says.

“We can’t focus only on technical skills and training. If we want our graduates to be successful, here in the United States or in a global market, they must be well-versed in the liberal arts.”

As chair of the Art and Languages Department, Dr. Arcides Gonzalez finds that students from all majors are interested in languages and cultures.

“We live in a highly connected, social world, and that world is multicultural and multilingual,” he says. “Students understand that. The world is so big, and we can’t live in a bubble.”

College is just the first step in a lifetime of learning, adds art professor Maggy Aston.

“What will induce students to become lifelong learners if we don’t give them a love of literature and art, of reading and thinking and learning? Where will they find inspiration for their own creativity if they haven’t been exposed to the classics?”

Dr. Holiday Adair, chair of the Psychology Department, says a liberal arts education “prepares us to become the kind of people others want to have around: good listeners, skilled in interpersonal relationships, grounded in historical and personal precedent.”

University Honors Program student Triana Shope focuses on fingerprint collection during a lab assignment in criminal justice.

Aptitudes and attitudes

Employers frequently talk about “soft skills” – a term Majocha dislikes because it downplays the value of transferrable skills such as communication, critical thinking, teamwork and creative problem-solving.

“College is a big financial investment, and it’s right for parents to ask whether their children will find a job and earn a good salary if they choose liberal arts,” the dean says.

“I tell them that languages and cultural awareness are critical in a global society. So is clear writing and speaking, leadership, and understanding human nature.

“A graduate’s resume rises to the top when an employer sees that he or she can speak and write and lead. That person can learn the job; that person can represent the company.

“Liberal arts provide all that, and more.”

— By Christine Kindl, VP for Communications and Marketing

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