Having a liberal arts degree isn't a good bet for a good living. That's the misconception many students had when Dan Gelo first became dean of the College of Liberal and Fine Arts more than seven years ago.
"Students were in my office saying 'I just don't know what I can do with it,' " he said. "We wanted to reassure students that they don't have to choose between their passion and the practical."
So Gelo created capstone courses that give seniors the opportunity to integrate their undergraduate learning and connect it to the world they soon will face, with a UTSA College of Liberal and Fine Arts bachelor's degree in hand. Along with internships and service learning, capstone courses are part of the Signature Experience at COLFA, designed as both a philosophical statement for the college and a way to show students the many ways to put a liberal arts degree to work.
A history major might work on an exhibit at the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, while an archaeology student might work on an excavation at a highway construction site, Gelo said. Art students work in galleries, learning how to sell art and understand its marketing.
Connecting a student's education with the working world can change not only that student, but others touched by the experience. This ripple effect can become something of an intellectual sonar—the classroom theory bounces off the real world situation, and in turn can bring change back to the university in the form of feedback and refined theories for educators. In fact, that's a crucial part of the Signature Experience, Gelo said.
"It's not enough just to get the information, but you have to channel it back and modify what you're doing," Gelo said. That kind of feedback and adjustment destroys the misguided belief that institutions of higher learning are disconnected from reality.
Sara DeTurk, associate professor in the Department of Communication, discovered this dynamic when she designed and taught a course in activism for communication students. She required her students to choose an organization, such as the Esperanza Peace & Justice Center and the Sierra Club, that reflected their values, to work within that organization and gather research on their experience to bring back to class.
"The ultimate goal is that students feel empowered as communicators," DeTurk said, "seeing the ways in which, when social change happens, it happens through communication."
When students can apply their theoretical knowledge to real-world issues, she said, the experiences deepen their understanding of theory and allow them to contribute more to the discussion.
It also better prepares students for the working world, said Joanne Ford-Robertson, a lecturer and internship coordinator in the Department of Sociology.
"A lot of our students haven't ever been in the working world," she said. The capstone and activism courses open their eyes to possibilities. "I think a lot of times students have tunnel vision in terms of what they can do with their degree."
For Ford-Robertson, students must complete either a 150-hour or 300-hour internship with organizations like United Way or the Bexar Juvenile Justice Center. They must also write two papers: one about the organization, its history, funding and goals; and the other applying sociological theory to the organization.
One student did a content analysis of older people in television commercials, noting what they sold and how they represented seniors. "There was a real disconnect between a real image versus an ideal image," Ford-Robertson said.
Then the student worked with the Alamo Area Agency on Aging, and wrote a paper on how the analysis related to the agency's work and what the agency might do to change distorted images.
"They can't just give me a research paper," Ford-Robertson said. "They have to connect it to what that agency is doing."
Roxanna Tehrani, a music marketing major, had already had three internships. But with her Signature Experience at the Santa Fe Opera, she knew she had the opportunity to learn how to apply her classroom learning in a real-world way. With the help of Matthew Dunne, the music marketing coordinator at UTSA, she got the gig within five days of sending in her application.
The leadership of a professor can be an instrumental part of finding the right Signature Experience. Like Tehrani, student Nicole Provencher was guided into her emotional Signature Experience by Ben Olguin, associate professor in the English department.
In Provencher, he found a student who was mature and who had a unique perspective and personal history—someone who could successfully design a course for homeless teen mothers living at Seton Home, which provides housing and supportive services for pregnant and/or parenting teens and their children in San Antonio.
To help her take on the project, Provencher drew on her own experiences as a teen mother and the knowledge that writing helped her create an image of herself that was more positive than the one she felt scowling down upon her from parents, peers and school officials.
Her six-week workshop reminded her of the powerful emotions she encountered as a teen mother. As she concluded it, she felt that while many of the girls still considered themselves deeply unfortunate, they are working against negative stereotypes and developing the skills to define their own lives.
That wasn't an easy experience, and Olguin wouldn't send just any student into that kind of situation. Students must have maturity, sensitivity and a good understanding of the population they're working with, he said. And there must be a good fit between the student and the project.
Collapsing the ivory tower
Sometimes the student and the project fit so well that the experience leads to a permanent job. That's what happened with Briggs Reschke's internship at the San Antonio Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
Reschke started out as a sociology major collecting DWI data at the Bexar County jail. Now, as the organization's data analyst, he's also working on his master's in sociology at UTSA and considering a thesis on using geospatial tools to better deal with social problems like substance abuse.
The internship showed Reschke in a real way how surveys and data yield useful information.
"As an academic exercise, you can read a book and take a class," he said, "but it doesn't compare to doing it." It also opened Reschke's eyes to the different ways to put a sociology education to work. "I think a sociology background would be advantageous for any position in this agency."
For Gelo, the array of courses offered through COLFA's Signature Experience is an embodiment of the college's purpose. It's not just about getting good grades. It's about the experience of learning and the real-world application of that knowledge gained. "We don't live in an ivory tower," he said. "It's a public university, and a big reason we do research and teaching is to better people's lives."