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Every once in a while, I like to sit back and reflect on what I’ve done with my life since graduating from college six years ago. It’s a way for me to gauge if I’ve made the most of my twenties (whatever that expression truly means) and if I’m reaching my full potential. This most recent trip down memory lane, I found myself thinking about liberal arts majors, of which I was during my college career. I have a Bachelors of Arts in French degree. The whole point of Twenty in Paris is to better prepare students for the Paris study abroad experience.
One part of this experience that I like to talk about often is the difference between French and American universities. Compared to our French friends, the American college experience is a pricey one, literally. Did you know the average college education debt in the USA was $28,400 in 2013 according to the Institute for College Access and Success? That’s a lot of money and it’s expected to only go up. Why am I mentioning this? Because with an increasing student loan debt, it’s important that students choose majors that are going to give them the most bang for their buck. American students don’t have the luxury of going to college only to increase their education; college is an investment in our future. And in this former liberal arts major’s humble opinion, not a liberal arts degree. Well, at least not a stand alone liberal arts (LA) degree.
In my study abroad searches online, I come across what seems like an overwhelming amount of LA study abroaders. I’ve seen study abroad fundraising sites asking for donations to help fund dancing, writing, singing, literature (I wrote an article on this one!), and of course, language in Paris. I have no doubt that these can be amazing study abroads, and I’m happy to know that LA majors understand the numerous benefits of an international education. But I’m still left wondering, if LA degrees are helping or hurting college students after college?
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Based on two separate 2011 studies by the Center on Education and Workforce at Georgetown University and the American Community Survey, LA majors found themselves at the head of the unemployment line compared with engineering, computer sciences, and business majors. To me, this isn’t saying that LA majors are unemployable, but rather, that it’s harder for them to find employment, or at least, good employment. I love the French language and loved being a French major, but I had no idea what I wanted to do with it for a career. Right before I graduated, I went to a job fair and ended up getting hired by a car insurance company in its medical claims department. It was absolute hell, but I took it because it was a job with decent pay and benefits. If you aren’t familiar with a claims department (lucky!), being a claims adjuster is like being the weed that is under the base of the totem pole; so low in the company’s and customers’ eyes that there isn’t even a name for it.
After working for six years straight post graduation, I can tell you that I got promoted from the weed beneath the totem pole to the very bottom totem. A step up, but nothing to write home about. However, I make a fairly comfortable salary along with benefits that combined with some super frugal living allowed me to pay off my student loans and save enough money to buy a house. The concern for myself and students like me is that many stand alone LA degrees do not have the power to get you higher on the ol’ t. pole like other ones (example engineering or business). In order for me to move up at any corporation type environment, I’ll have to go back to school and get a science-y or business degree. Why? Because there isn’t a place for BA French degrees in the workplace if it’s not combined with any other degree, not even as a teacher. So what do you do if engineering or business isn’t your thing?
You gotta figure out what you want to do with your life. And it’s hard to do that at 20 years old. So how do you start? Speak with professors of your declared major at your university. For example, if you’re a literature major talk to a literature professor. Send him/her an email along the lines of, “Hi. My name is _______. I’m a 1st year literature student and I’d appreciate the opportunity to ask you about career paths for this major over coffee. Did you have some free time this week?”. Remember professors are busy too so if you don’t get a response back within a few days be sure to follow up with an in person visit. Also, don’t forget that you need to buy the coffee! The goal of this meeting is to find out your viable career paths as a LA major in that field.
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As a LA major in the workforce, I can tell you from first hand experience that single LA degrees are entry level positions. You have to get really creative to find opportunities at your job that you can use to grow new skills to advance to higher positions. But not all is lost if you are a single LA major student. According to an extremely vague report by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, workers who majored as undergraduates in the humanities and social sciences earn about $2,000 more annually than those who majored in professional and pre-professional degrees. That’s great news…until you read the part about how this happens when workers are in the 56-60 years old age bracket. So what does this mean? It means that LA majors have to wait a while to see the financial benefits of their degree. What can you do to start seeing a little more green earlier? Combine that LA degree with something else!
The best advice I can give to LA majors is to pair your LA major with another degree and a career path that is going to give you the return on your investment. For example, if you’re a psychology major, why not pair it with marketing so that you can really understand how to appeal to consumers. Or are you a French major? Why not major in French, minor in business? You can get a job at a French speaking company and more easily move up in the business office than if you only had a French degree. Being a LA major is very rewarding, but it isn’t always the most practical for career advancement. Pairing it up with another major can be a great way to increase your marketability and moveability in the workforce.
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