How Curiosity Can Lead You To A Degree At WashU’s University College

One factor that can often intimidate students from pursuing higher education is the uncertainty about what career path would be the best fit—and what to study. Fortunately, University College at Washington University in St. Louis doesn’t require students to have it all figured out before they begin taking classes. In fact, University College encourages students to explore subjects that interest them, regardless of whether they lead to a direct career path or not. “That’s one of our greatest strengths,” says George Winston, University College director of admissions. “We have great courses across a wide range of programs, and students might take a class just because they’re interested and curious. Oftentimes they wind up really enjoying it, and it can dovetail into a degree program.”

Elisa Wang, academic advisor and coordinator of student services at University College, has witnessed the payoff of this philosophy for many of the students she has advised. She recites success stories of all kinds: students who come into the program seeking personal enrichment and leave with a gateway to a new career; students who don’t know what to study and end up discovering their true passion; students who diverge from their initial plan for a better professional fit, and many paths in between.

05.16.2014 - Scenes from the 153rd Commencement at Washington University in St. Louis on Friday, May 16, 2014 in St. Louis. Commencement Address: Tony La Russa Honorary Grand Marshall: Martha Storandt Honorary Degrees: Henry Bloch Temple Grandin Tony La Russa Vivian Pinn David Robertson Diana Walsh Student Speaker: Varan Pratap Mehrotra James Byard / WUSTL Photos

“One student who came to our preview night works at a local company and she wanted to take some business-related courses. She already had an undergraduate degree, and I started talking to her about what she enjoyed doing in college,” Wang recalls. “Turned out what she really loved was reading and writing.” The student took an interdisciplinary literature course and used the information she learned during a presentation for upper management at her company. “She discovered that liberal-arts education gives you leadership skills. You learn to think outside the box and apply facts from different perspectives.” Wang remembers another student who applied to the anthropology program but ended up falling in love with psychology classes instead. After completing honors-level research in psychology, he founded a nonprofit equine therapy program for military veterans, based on the knowledge he acquired at University College.

Students who do have a career path in mind are equally as successful at University College. Professors, administrators,and advisors are focused on helping students find their passion as well as achieve career goals. Dr. Harriet Stone, director of the Master of Liberal Arts program and professor of French and comparative literature, also stresses the personal and professional growth University College students achieve. “To me, the driving force of our students is that they are motivated by curiosity. That curiosity comes in many forms. Sometimes they know exactly what they want to do, and sometimes they start with what interests them. They might know that they love to read, or that they want to study art history, or that they’re fascinated by global politics. Those students will be directed towards courses that match those interests.”

Wang also sees this kind of student amidst those she advises. “If they’re dead-set on what they want to do, I show them that path,” says Wang. “I have them enroll in classes and see if they want to pursue it further. You can usually tell after a few classes if it’s a good fit. Rather than trying to tell people what I think, I let them explore for themselves. They do that by taking a class and talking to me about it, what they enjoyed and what they didn’t.”

May 17, 2013 - The 152nd Commencement of WUSTL held in the Quad of the Danforth Campus. Commencement Speaker: Mayor Cory Booker Honorary Degrees: Marilyn Fox Martin Mathews Juhani Pallasmaa Peter Rosen Howard Wood Photos by Joe Angeles

Wang herself is also an example of a successful career-changer through the programs offered at University College. After her first career as a lawyer, she became interested in nonprofit work when she had children. “I volunteered at my children’s schools, at church and things like that.” To move further up in the nonprofit world, she needed to learn how to read financial statements and documents and began taking classes in University College’s Nonprofit Management Program, eventually earning her certificate.

“As I was doing volunteer work in different fields, I was thinking, ‘What really interests me?’ I found I was really passionate about school, especially higher education. When I took classes, I was so impressed by my classmates. It seems to me that there’s such a wealth of talent in our community.” Wang eventually became a University College academic advisor five years ago. “It’s a real privilege to help our students advance and to see their lives change. I’m a big believer in education,” she says.

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