Students explore career pathways through the humanities with Alumni Connections program

By April Hunt | Aug. 17, 2021

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During the past year, Emory undergraduates and alumni connected through virtual panels showcasing how valuable an education in the humanities is to a wide range of career fields. The initiative is supported by an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant.

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Students in Emory College of Arts and Sciences and Oxford College took a deeper dive into the broad applicability of a liberal arts education this past year by hearing directly from alumni who have taken their degrees in the humanities into wide-ranging and rewarding careers around the world.

More than 200 members of the Emory community logged onto the Alumni Connections panels that featured various humanities departments and their alumni. Initially planned as an in-person opportunity, the pivot to an online format proved successful and expanded the initial reach of the program.

In one event, a supervisor at Amazon explained how studying German helps with a career at the tech giant. In another, a music major explained how applying the ensemble mindset aids in the teamwork necessary during medical school.  

Those and other interactions in the nine panels proved so successful — energizing undergraduates, professors and alumni alike — that Alumni Connections will continue online even after campus reopens this fall.

“The connections being made with our alumni are invaluable in helping our students see the meaning and purpose of an education for life beyond campus,” says Emory College Dean Michael A. Elliott. “One of the things our students learn, in meeting our alumni across the country and abroad, is that the humanities can take you places and into careers you may not imagine are possible.”

Adds Dean of Oxford College Doug Hicks, "We have learned a great deal about how virtual technology can help us to connect alumni to our students, for mutual benefit and learning. It is easier for us to engage active alumni when they can log directly into courses, and students see the clear connections between what they are studying and career pathways that are open to them.

“Although we will be adding in on-campus opportunities for alums and worksite visits for undergraduates, these virtual connections will continue long after the pandemic,” Hicks says.

The Alumni Connections panels are one of four components of the Humanities Pathways initiative at Emory College and Oxford College, Emory’s liberal arts colleges for undergraduates.

Supported by a $1.25 million grant Emory received in 2019 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the initiative focuses on faculty innovations that help students understand the value of a humanities education.

The initiative has hosted workshops for faculty seeking to integrate skills into their courses to be useful for a variety of careers. It also held a seminar on the history and future of the workforce, allowing professors to consider their discipline’s role in large-scale outlooks.

Planned alumni panels that brought a handful of graduates to the Atlanta and Oxford campuses were canceled in spring 2020, says Peter Höyng, professor of German studies at Emory College, who co-directs Humanities Pathways with Tasha Dobbin-Bennett, associate professor of art history and studio art at Oxford College.

Last fall, the team brought on Sophia Falvey, a PhD candidate in English, as a graduate assistant to partner with Emory College’s Office of Advancement and Alumni Engagement to recreate the panels in a virtual environment.

The resulting Alumni Connections panels convened three to five Emory and Oxford alumni from specific humanities departments for more focused conversations. Between November and April, 119 students joined faculty and alumni for the conversations.

“It was fascinating for the faculty to reconnect with their alumni and for the students to see how the humanities, their majors and minors, open doors both professionally and individually,” Höyng says. “If COVID-19 taught us one thing in higher education, it’s how much meaningful learning comes with the emotional bonds we were able to create, even online.”

Alumni share their stories

Sarah (Earp) Lee 12C entered Emory sure of two things: She wanted to major in music, and she wanted to become a doctor.

This spring, she completed her residency in psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where she also played chamber music with her program director and other musicians. Her discipline of practicing viola since she was 10 no doubt helped her focus on her studies there and at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine.

But Lee focused her panel chat on how her music and neuroscience and behavioral biology double major, along with the friendships she forged while playing in the Emory University Symphony Orchestra, helped her thrive.

The similarities between orchestra and clinical work, she says, are striking: Each has either a conductor or attending physician in charge of the room and a first chair or senior resident handling the performers, as everyone collaborates in service of a singular goal.

“It was intentional to major in music, because you can do something that’s enjoyable and still learn,” says Lee, who just started a fellowship in forensic psychiatry at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

“You develop a different set of creative skills that keeps you balanced,” Lee adds. “And over time in performing, I learned to have fun and just do the best I could, which has helped me with performing at my best in high-stress medical situations.”

Music also has provided a community of support, both in performing and mentorship. Lee has stayed in regular contact with her undergraduate mentor Kristin Wendland, including inviting the professor of pedagogy in music to her recent wedding.

“My mentorship at Emory gave me the confidence to do what I wanted to do, while my classes gave me the space to learn what I wanted to learn and to hone the critical thinking skills no matter what I was studying,” Lee adds.

For Sarah Richards 09C, the panel was a way to stay connected with Emory at a time when she couldn’t travel. She first visited Vienna as an undergraduate sociology major and German studies minor, participating in the nine-week summer course there.

She later served as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Austria and has since become a German teacher at a Gwinnett County high school. Aside from last summer, when global travel all but halted, she has journeyed each year to Vienna and Germany for her own vacation and to teach with the very Emory program that first drew her there.

“The value of the liberal arts education is the bravery and privilege that lets you look beyond the immediately obvious degree that leads to a specific career,” Richards says. “In some regards, my path is the obvious path. But the bigger message, which I try to impress on students, is that getting a perspective on the world through another language or culture is something you can apply to anything you want.”

Falvey, who graduates in August, noticed that alumni on all of last year’s panels also emphasized curiosity as well as other skills cultivated in the humanities, such as the ability to think and communicate across different perspectives and grasp new information quickly and apply it to multiple contexts.

She recently accepted a one-year position in Dean Elliott’s office to help plan another year of panels that build out that framework for all humanities departments and alumni. The goal is to deepen connections among faculty, students and alumni to show the role the humanities can play in creating meaningful careers and lives.

“It’s exciting how often our alumni expressed that the skills and knowledge cultivated through a humanities education will be valuable in jobs you can’t even name yet, which will help you navigate an uncertain job market and adapt quickly so you remain competitive and fulfilled in a rapidly changing world,” Falvey says.