With UW program, liberal arts degrees are no dead end

For students who’ve long heard their liberal arts degrees won’t lead to successful careers, the SuccessWorks program at UW–Madison aims build connections with future employers.

It’s a common refrain heard by many people with degrees in the arts, humanities, or social sciences — “Oh, that’s nice … so what can you do with a degree in that?”

The belief, held by many, that many of the majors in the College of Letters & Science at UW–Madison weren’t preparing students for productive, competitive jobs and internships, wasn’t lost on John Karl Scholz, dean of the College of Letters & Science, and his colleagues.

It lead Scholz to launch the L&S Career Initiative in 2013 to transform the way liberal arts students embark on their careers, and to make the college’s partnerships with employers a key element of student success. That endeavor has since grown into SuccessWorks, which opened its doors to students last year and is already making a meaningful impact on students’ futures.

The Career Initiative grew out of three simple observations. First was that belief that many of the majors in the College of Letters & Science weren’t preparing students for careers after college. “We knew that wasn’t true,” says Rebekah Pryor Paré, associate dean for the L&S Career Initiative and executive director of SuccessWorks. “Students of every major in the College of Letters & Science build four critical skills sought by employers everywhere, from startups to Fortune 500 companies: critical thinking, communication, creativity, and the ability to build connections across cultures, differences, and varying points of view. With the right combination of resources, confidence, and connections, our students can do anything.”

Second, College of Letters & Science faculty wanted to make sure that every student who graduates from L&S is afforded the same level of life-changing opportunities. Nearly 20 percent of these students, when they graduate, will be the first in their families to have a college degree, notes Paré. “To live up to the promise of higher education, we need to create opportunity for all L&S students.

“Third, our alumni are successful, passionate, and numerous,” Paré adds. “With over 200,000 living L&S alumni, current students have a vast network of mentors and supporters eager to offer guidance and open doors of opportunity.”

During the 2017–2018 academic year, the Career Initiative reached a milestone with the opening of SuccessWorks, a new center for personal and professional development that leverages partnerships with employers and alumni to start preparing students for career success from their first day at UW–Madison.

SuccessWorks is located in a modern space on the third floor of the University Book Store building on Library Mall, and is designed to help students build connections between academics, personal interests, and professional skills. SuccessWorks is a hub for advising students, and also offers hands-on workshops, alumni networking, and internship and job interviews.

Since SuccessWorks opened to students in fall 2017:

  • Career and internship advising participation (including 1:1 and group advising) is up 29 percent;
  • The overall reach of L&S students increased by 10 percentage points (2017–18 over 2016–17), reaching 38% of the L&S undergraduate population, which amounts to approximately 16,000 students total.
  • In the first eight weeks of the fall semester, there was a threefold increase in on-campus interviews when compared to the entire previous academic year.
  • Across 2017–18, 129 events and workshops were hosted for students hosted.
  • Internship stipends increased from $35,000 to $137,000. These awards go to students with financial need, for whom unpaid internships or paid internships in costly locations would otherwise be untenable. This year 60 students were awarded with internship stipends between $1,000 and $5,000, up from just seven last year.

According to Paré, preliminary data from the current fall 2018 semester shows continued, rapid growth in student engagement.

Alumni assist

Through the L&S Board of Visitors’ Career Initiative Committee, Paré says alumni have played a major role in high-level strategic planning for SuccessWorks.

“To prepare for the branding and opening of SuccessWorks, student focus groups were integral to the process as we designed a new space that would appeal to all L&S students,” notes Paré. “More recently, we’ve built a team of volunteer alumni who are more recent graduates, who offer their time and expertise to help us create new opportunities for students to connect with alumni through events and programs.”

The College of Letters & Science Taking Initiative Career Course is also designed to help first and second-year students start building the skills and confidence they need to build a career readiness plan effectively and early. Feedback from students and alumni was critical to the development of the course syllabus, and continues to be used as the course is updated and improve, explains Paré.



The response from students and employers has so far been tremendous, Paré notes. The number of employers doing real and mock interviews from the SuccessWorks space is way up — a testament to the fact that SuccessWorks makes it easier than ever for employers to hire L&S students, she says.

Career and internship advising appointments are also up since SuccessWorks opened.

“When I first found SuccessWorks, it felt like fate,” notes Giselle B., a history major who graduate in May of this year. “I had been looking for career services to help me break into the business world. Finally, I had access to resources geared toward L&S students like me. I’m happy to say that SuccessWorks helped me successfully land my dream job at a business consulting firm.”

“Whether you are visiting for advice from one of SuccessWorks’ many helpful advisors, getting resume help, or doing a mock interview, the new center truly demonstrates how committed the College of Letters & Science is to helping students in developing and finding future jobs and careers,” adds David D., a Chinese and philosophy major scheduled to graduate in May 2019.

“When SuccessWorks opened in 2017, it marked a major improvement in our ability to serve both students and employers,” says Paré. “Our central location in the heart of campus, with a suite of 12 dedicated interview rooms, means that we’re easier than ever for employers to recruit on site. Through events and programming, we’re doing more than ever to connect students with recent alumni who can offer advice and open doors of opportunity.

“And our brand new Career Closet offers free professional clothing and accessories to students who need them for interviews, jobs, and internships,” Paré adds.

Measuring success

Since opening SuccessWorks, the College of Letters & Science has more than doubled its number of staff dedicated to offering career guidance and expertise around specific occupations.

SuccessWorks is continuing to reach out to Wisconsin businesses to help them build talent pipelines to the L&S population of over 16,000 undergraduates. “We don’t just offer employers a location to recruit on campus,” notes Paré. “We also work with our employer partners to help them optimize their job and internship application and search process to yield the best candidates possible, and to create the resources and programming our students need to be prepared, capable, and qualified from day one on the job.”

What sets SuccessWorks apart is the Career Communities advising model, Paré explains. Career Communities are clusters of related occupations, each with a dedicated SuccessWorks advisor who specializes in helping students explore and prepare for these careers. Through exploration of Career Communities, students get connected with expert advising, plus the employers and alumni who can help them prepare, and then they land great positions.

Career Communities also help employers who engage with SuccessWorks by connecting them with the best candidates from across many majors. This represents a new, game-changing approach for employers hiring liberal arts students, says Paré.

“For students, Career Communities unlocks a huge array of new opportunities,” states Paré. “History majors are landing jobs in business consulting. Political science majors are excelling in the tech field. SuccessWorks helps students leverage their L&S degree for success in a tremendous variety of industries and fields.”

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.