The Power of a Liberal Arts Education
Satyam Panday ’02, a senior economist for S&P Global, is charged with developing macroeconomic forecasts and risks to growth for the U.S. and Canadian economies. It’s challenging work in normal times, but as the COVID-19 virus accelerated last spring, he found himself in uniquely uncharted territory. How could he and his team predict the economic impact of a once-in-a-century pandemic? The moment required him to think expansively about the factors that might influence what would come next for the economy.
For that reason, Panday says, St. Olaf College prepared him well. Last year, he spent time learning about the unique psychological impact of COVID-19. He studied the history of pandemics and drew on his deep knowledge of geography and globalization. He paired those insights with the more traditional research he often did on public policy actions and monetary policy. “The liberal arts framework of thinking about things gives you the basis to analyze events from more than just a mathematical point of view,” he says. “That extra layer is what can distinguish you from a regular forecaster and will help you be successful.”
Champions of a liberal arts education like to say that it doesn’t prepare you for a job, it prepares you for almost any job. That’s important: according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, students will change jobs more than a dozen times between graduation and retirement. Many of the jobs that current students will hold in the future don’t yet exist. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the toolkit of skills developed through a liberal arts education — rather than a single, narrow certification — is good hedge against future uncertainty.
The diversity of classes that I took nurtured my curiosity for all kinds of topics. That has stayed with me to this day.S&P Global Senior Economist Satyam Panday ’02
And 2020 brought us plenty of uncertainty. In a particularly prescient speech at the 2012 Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute event, St. Olaf President David R. Anderson ’74 made the case for the liberal arts in exactly those terms. “[A] liberal arts education best prepares you to flourish in an unknown future because it is not tied to a specific version of the present,” he said. “[It allows you] to understand the geography of human knowledge so that you are able to recognize a problem and know what kinds of questions you can ask to best yield insights.”
The liberal arts may not be the easiest path for students to take. They take classes that may be beyond what they might otherwise feel most comfortable taking. They work hard to develop and communicate their own ideas clearly. They ask hard questions about what they believe — about the world and about themselves. It requires them to embrace the uncertainty that is inherent in the future.
But when students put themselves through this particular intellectual crucible, they have the tools to succeed in their careers, whatever that may look like. And perhaps even more important, they have the tools to find personal fulfillment in their lives.
Satyam Panday says that the liberal arts education that he received at St. Olaf developed his openness and interest in the world. “The diversity of classes that I took nurtured my curiosity for all kinds of topics,” he says. “That has stayed with me to this day.”
Students choose a liberal arts education in part because it fosters curiosity, engagement, and thoughtfulness. Students with degrees from St. Olaf are prepared not just for the responsibilities of citizenship and cultural fluency, but for rewarding and purposeful careers and lives.
A liberal arts education is about more than ‘checking the boxes.’ It allows you to ask: How do I want to make an impact? How can I help others? How do I define ‘being fulfilled’ ?Love Odetola ’14, University of North Carolina, Greensboro
The results of St. Olaf’s approach to education bear out the wisdom of this approach. Internal surveys at St. Olaf found that 95 percent of 2020 graduates were employed, enrolled in graduate school, or engaged in full-time service within nine months of graduation. More broadly, according to the most recent Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS) survey, 84 percent of alumni report they have found satisfying jobs, and 79 percent report that their job leverages the skills they developed at St. Olaf.
Kirsten Cahoon ’98, senior associate director for Employer and Alumni Relations at the Piper Center for Vocation and Career, sees the individuals behind these statistics up close. As part of her role, she helps connect students to employers in a range of different industries — and knows exactly how valuable a liberal arts education is to employers.
For many companies, Oles represent the ideal job candidates. Employers know that St. Olaf graduates learn quickly and can excel in new and changing or ambiguous environments. But even more than that, Oles bring a skill set to jobs that, over time, will help them transition to positions demanding greater responsibility and leadership. It’s why Fortune 500 companies, from Amazon to UnitedHealth Group to U.S. Bank, are among the top employers of St. Olaf graduates. “It’s true that some employers want a short-term ‘plug and play’ fix,” Cahoon acknowledges. “But managers in organizations who look at the longer range appreciate our students for their broader problem-solving skills. They want someone who looks at the world from a more interdisciplinary lens, and someone who is curious and holistic in their approach.”
Bobby Hunter ’08, the CFO of the Individual Medicare Advantage Business at UnitedHealth Group, says he’s always thrilled to hire Oles as part of his team — even though graduates with more specialized degrees, such as accounting or finance, may seem like a more obvious fit. “Oles come to the table with a broad and diversified skill set that allows them to take on many different challenges and develop many areas of expertise,” he says, rather than relying on a more tailored set of technical skills that might result from a more specialized degree. “At St. Olaf, you learn how to learn and you learn how to be successful.”
Oles are often so accustomed to picking up new skills and adapting them that they sometimes need a reminder about how valuable these traits are to employers, says Hunter. “Yes, students with specialized degrees in finance or accounting are often able to transition nicely into roles that require such skills,” he says. “But these roles evolve, and the question becomes: Can you navigate through complex and unforeseen challenges? Can you build and implement a successful strategy? Can you communicate effectively and find common ground between people who have opposing views? That’s where you really see the liberal arts skill set kick in.”
A liberal arts education best prepares you to flourish in an unknown future because it is not tied to a specific version of the present.St. Olaf President David R. Anderson ’74
Love Odetola ’14, currently a Ph.D. student in public health at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has a growing appreciation for the skill set that her St. Olaf coursework gave her. Through the classes she took as part of the five-course Great Conversation sequence, for example, she honed an ability to think about big ideas, question her own beliefs, and write and speak with clarity and nuance. “The Great Conversation courses were crucial for me,” she says.
Odetola says these skills laid the foundation for graduate school, enabling her to pick up complex public health concepts quickly, even as her peers sometimes struggled. “I realized that some people had a hard time seeing the bigger picture,” she says. “For me, the concepts we were learning just made sense.”
Chris Paradise ’14 had spent years of his life planning to become a doctor, and his biology degree from St. Olaf prepared him well for that path. But during a gap year at a Mayo Clinic research lab, he realized he was far more interested in exploring where research could take him. He decided to change course, ultimately pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology and experimental therapeutics rather than an M.D.
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Chris George ’94 says these kinds of pivots are common and should be welcomed. A liberal arts education exposes people to many different ideas and perspectives, and this naturally leads many students to change or expand their own ideas about what is possible for themselves. “Students are surrounded by people who are curious, who ask interesting questions, and who challenge them in different ways,” he says. “That liberal arts approach of inquiry and questioning doesn’t just enhance the college experience. It helps people understand what is important to them.”
The liberal arts approach of inquiry and questioning doesn’t just enhance the college experience. It helps people understand what is important to them.Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Chris George ’94
Years after deciding to pursue a different path, Paradise is now a senior analytical scientist at Rion. The biotechnology startup, linked to Mayo Clinic, focuses on regenerative therapies that may help treat conditions such as cardiovascular disease. Even now, his liberal arts degree continues to pay dividends. While his Ph.D. gives him the knowledge he needs to excel in the technical aspects of his work, his liberal arts degree offers him the wider view that is essential in a startup environment.
“I don’t operate in a void,” Paradise says. “I’m in a position that requires me to interact with a wide array of people, from business development to quality assurance. I have to think about the ethics of patient care. I have to communicate with the general public and provide accurate information,” he says. “The economics and ethics courses I took at St. Olaf help me navigate those things. And I use the writing and verbal communication skills I learned on a daily basis.”
Because of its interdisciplinary nature, a liberal arts education is also particularly valuable in careers that demand a holistic approach to problem solving. Nicole Novak ’08, an epidemiologist and public health researcher at the University of Iowa, says that her own work draws heavily on the knowledge of many different disciplines.
Her research analyzes how certain types of immigration enforcement — immigration arrests, raids, and detentions, for example — can lead to health issues such as chronic stress among those who experience these events.
To study the topic, she draws on all three of her majors — environmental studies, Spanish, and Hispanic studies — as well as her concentration in statistics. She adds that her study abroad experiences in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua have given her a useful background because they are the home countries of many of the people she works with today. These undergraduate hands-on experiences were further enhanced when, as a 2008 Rhodes Scholar, Novak pursued graduate work at Oxford University, earning master of science degrees in medical anthropology and global health science.
The value of her liberal arts education comes not just from being able to draw on expertise from a range of disciplines but also from using them to ask bigger, more useful questions. “If you’re thinking about health problems only at an individual level, you might ask if the problem is that individuals with a certain health problem are ill-informed or if they’re making ‘bad’ decisions,” she says. “But that’s not the only way to think about it. You could also think: What are the policies and social environments that constrain this group of people? What is the history that led this group of people to be in this specific circumstance? What are the structural conditions that could have shaped behavior?”
Public health is inherently a subject that requires a multilevel approach. And that’s part of what makes it such a great field for someone with a liberal arts background. Nicole Novak ’08, epidemiologist and public health researcher at the University of Iowa
At the same time, Novak recognizes that the larger systems she studies affect real people. “I never want to lose sight of the fact that each person is unique, with their own stories and perspectives,” she says. “It is not enough to consider only individuals, just as it is not enough to look only at larger policies and systems.”
Novak’s ability to understand how a range of different elements, from individual choices to public policies, intersect and affect one another gives her greater insight into the big questions and possible solutions to issues in her field. “Public health is inherently a [subject that requires] a multilevel approach,” she says. “And that’s part of what makes it such a great field for someone with a liberal arts background.”
“A liberal arts degree helps people think big,” says Odetola, “beyond the next good grade, beyond the next step on the career ladder, beyond a specific level of financial success. A liberal arts education is about more than ‘checking the boxes.’ It allows you to ask: How do I want to make an impact? How can I help others? How do I define ‘being fulfilled?’ Those are questions I had to answer that have made the most difference in my life.”