Today’s Pupils, Tomorrow’s Professionals

by Madeleine Maccar | May 7, 2024
Today’s Pupils, Tomorrow’s Professionals
Addressing talent shortages, anticipating emerging industries’ needs, and navigating both the practical application and responsible execution of unprecedented technologies might not immediately sound like the auspices of higher education, but they’re all top-of-mind for today’s college and university leaders—not to mention holistically supporting students on the brink of their careers so they can begin that next chapter as advantageously as possible.

And while the end result of ushering another class of freshly minted college graduates toward an adulthood of meaningful, rewarding employment remains the same, both the journey college students take to get there and how educational institutions guide that path are undergoing the evolution that’s inherent to staying relevant in an ever-changing world.

Whether it’s through providing the tools students use to further their education, a better understanding of what different learning styles need, committing to diversity initiatives, or collaborating with regional industries to identify how today’s students can best rise to tomorrow’s challenges, New Jersey’s colleges and universities are ensuring alumni not only enter the workforce ready to take on the professional world but also gain invaluable insights into their own inner landscapes.

When Technology Meets Education

Given the head-spinning speed at which technology advances and outpaces itself, it’s no surprise that leaders in the higher-education world are well aware that the modern tools their freshmen use will typically be eclipsed by the tech at their disposal by graduation.

“Those students entering college now, they could be working until the year 2080,” notes Robert Bullard, director, office of career advancement at Rowan University. “At the end of the day, technology is going to change. It’s short-sighted to think that we have all the instruction needed for the technology of the next 30 years.”

Knowing how to responsibly navigate technology remains an in-demand skill no matter the specific tools, though the advent of user-fed artificial intelligence (AI) tools becoming so accessible that their application is literally right in the public’s hands has certainly generated timely conversations centered on where its best uses can be harnessed, where it still needs human intervention and where its presence is morally questionable.

Those gray areas in particular merit deeper conversations so students can forge ahead armed with the knowledge that boosts confidence and critical thinking instead of being ruled by the fear that lends itself to needless panic and an increased susceptibility to misinformation that further amplifies an unfounded reluctance to embrace and understand technological advancements.

“One of the things we’re noticing in many industries—not just higher education—is kind of a wariness around artificial intelligence and these emerging technologies, so we’ve had interesting debates on how do we deal with it, like do we put it in the syllabi that you are not allowed to use CHatGPT,” begins Dr. Monica Adya, dean of the Rutgers School of Business–Camden. “The reality is the technologies are here. I think it is our responsibility as educational institutions first to make sure the fear of that technology goes away for our students, but also that they are discerning leaders who know when the technology works for them and their constituents—and when it doesn’t. That means knowing what we refer to as ‘the dark side of AI,’ and how to not let it impact the greater good of society.”

Holistically Empowering Every Student

Learning about technology can help students learn with technology, which was certainly an asset to colleges already set up for digital classrooms when the lockdown struck four years ago. Incorporating both asynchronous and remote access to degree-level coursework has helped colleges and universities reach students where they are. Making it easier for them to learn how and when they digest information the best is an increasingly important point as higher-education environments continually identify how to combat lingering learning loss or missed developmental milestones hindering a student from reaching their full potential.

“Yes, we’ve seen quite a bit of learning loss and, yes, we’re actively trying to assist our students,” says Stockton University President Joe Bertolino, Ed. D. “We provide additional education opportunities, whether it’s remedial classes, tutoring, advising, etc.—all of those have increased—but probably the biggest issue that we see facing our students really centers around mental health. The stressors on students, their families and the community as a whole with people losing their loved ones and their careers … and the overall stress of being locked in impacts one’s development academically and personally, emotionally. I’ve been in higher education for almost 35 years, and the need for outside-the-classroom resources for students has never been greater.”

After all, a college education isn’t just about preparing students to succeed in their careers: It’s about nurturing the person they are today and laying a strong foundation they can build on. That’s why educators are focusing more on resiliency, confidence and flexibility in thought.

“For us as a university, it’s really two-fold: One, we want to infuse lifelong skills in our students that will make them successful regardless of what’s happening in the world, whether that’s learning how to critically think or how to learn, how to have an articulate conversation without getting mad at someone, and learning how to have disagreements from an academic standpoint, where you can respect someone’s opinion and give a cogent argument back,” Bullard says. “Those are skills that industries look for.”

Recognizing that every student body comprises a variety of learning styles, interests, wellness needs and backgrounds helps college leaders meet that plurality of on-campus demands with thoughtfully crafted support networks and niche programs developed around students’ unique vantage points so they have a better chance of finishing their coursework.

For example, in 2023, Stockton reported that nearly 50% of its students are the first in their family to seek a college degree, while Dr. Adya reports a similar statistic that she adds is unsurprising, noting that Rutgers–Camden’s Chancellor Antonio D. Tillis, Ph.D., openly leads the college with “a strong commitment to first-generation students’ success.”

The region’s schools recognize that familial support backing higher-education aspirations isn’t always enough when students feel alienated from well-meaning loved ones who lack the lived experience to provide the specific guidance they need to best a university-specific challenge. Bringing together not only current students but also an energized alumni network who can all wholly relate because they’ve walked that path before can be a uniquely comforting lifeline.

“The services and the community around first-generation students here is exceptional,” says Dr. Bertolino. “Students go out of their way to introduce themselves proudly as first-generation college students—I’ve never experienced that before! I think part of it is because not only do we speak about first-gen students but we have, as part of student affairs and academic affairs, an entire program geared specifically for first-gen students, with everything from transition services to advising to counseling to programming.”

The Benefits of Diversity

Dr. Adya has extensive experience with DEI initiatives, particularly when it comes to her research on womens’ participation and experiences in the male-dominated IT field. She has the well-investigated data to demonstrate that underserved or underrepresented populations aren’t the only beneficiaries of inclusive efforts: The organizations welcoming them see notable benefits, too.

“There is such strong evidence in research that when you have an organization that represents the diversity of perspectives from different lived experiences, it performs better in many metrics, in terms of organization bottom lines to making a commitment to societal impact as a for-profit business,” she says. “I think it’s a dual responsibility of higher education institutions and businesses to work together to make sure that our students feel they’re ready to make a difference in a field where they might not be able to see themselves right away.”

At Thomas Edison State University (TESU), which caters to adult students looking to obtain an undergraduate, graduate or doctorate degree, President Dr. Merodie A. Hancock points out that the academic institution was “founded to be non-traditional.” Bringing together individuals from so many different walks of life makes for a unique course experience dependent upon the mix of students.

“Our courses are always being improved by what people bring to them, and it’s really that integration of people in our courses who are also in the workforce as managers and leaders bringing quite a bit into it … It’s not just ‘Here’s the theory, read the textbook and let me lecture you’: It’s somebody in the field saying, ‘This is how I’ve experienced this and this is what’s happening now’—think about fields like criminal justice and cybersecurity and everything that’s happening there. They get a much richer experience when they can listen to their classmates’ experience,” she says. “Even students who don’t have experience in what they’re studying, we’ll hear compliments like, ‘Oh, I just learned so much more listening to this other student who’s been in the field.’ It really is a win-win.”

While the dismantling of affirmative action is a valid cause for concern, hope is not lost for those students possessing the academic aptitude to thrive in post-secondary education but now worry that opportunity-unlocking degree is even further out of reach without any established mechanism to overcoming systemic disadvantage. The region’s colleges are renewing their commitment to educational accessibility, whether it’s scholarship opportunities, emergency funds, financial resources or simply fostering an inclusive environment.

Ensuring that a college education remains accessible in its affordability is another key focus for local colleges and universities, as decision-makers are well aware that no young adult wants to face their next chapter already staring down a daunting debt that will follow them for decades.

“Our president and the entire university, we all think about this on a daily basis,” Bullard affirms, explaining that affordability is one of Rowan’s four pillars that also include access, quality and being an economic engine. “The affordability standpoint is that we want to make sure a few things happen. One is that we have programs that provide access to students, whether it’s through scholarship money or the 3+1 programs where, for $25,000, students can go to a community college for three years, the third year is taught by our faculty, and the fourth year is on the community college campus but you pay our tuition for one year and are also taught by our faculty.”

Industry Collaboration and Experience

Colleges’ and universities’ partnerships go beyond working with other educational institutions, as connecting students with the local employers providing them anywhere from hands-on internships to employment pipelines is a proven way to help students make those career connections.

“For example, the largest supporter of our students is Lockheed Martin: Over the last 10 years, they have hired more than 400 of our students in different capacities. That really started with a partnership that’s led to creating a curriculum together,” says Bullard. “You name the field, we’re doing internships in it. The goal is to be as nimble as possible when new industries come to our region. We’re incredibly blessed that cannabis and offshore wind—and clean energy, more broadly—are going to be key players in the state of New Jersey for years to come so, for us, the things that we do are really guided by our industry peers and our industry partners.”

TESU, too, prides itself on staying in lockstep with local industry, citing both the advent of legalized marijuana and endeavoring to fill the void of mental-health nurses as prime examples of how the school is taking its cues from local industry to fine-tune some much-needed educational pipelines. Dr. Hancock points to a nearly $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to help expand mental-health nursing in New Jersey, and how it’s partnering with providers like Ancora Psychiatric Hospital to recruit those needed nurses.

“That’s a perfect example of how we can move so quickly with industry,” she begins. “We’re hearing that there’s a nursing shortage, but within that shortage, there’s a desperate need in the mental-health and psychiatric nursing field. We could very quickly take advantage of our subject-matter-expertise network and put together a proposal and say, ‘We will develop a nurse-practitioner program for this population.’ And this grant is wonderful, because it funded the development of this program and then it’s funding a number of nurse scholarships.”

And by ushering the region’s students toward the meaningful, impactful and in-demand work they envisioned their careers following, that post-secondary education is helping those young adults combine their well-rounded educations to run toward their own professional aspirations, confident that their toolkits are filled with everything they need to succeed no matter the changes ahead.

“Employers consistently ask for employees who can think critically, who can communicate, who can engage their relationships, who can think about and solve problems, who can interact with others in appropriate ways, and who know how to balance technology with interpersonal skills,” says Dr. Bertolino. “Employers want individuals who can learn how to do jobs that will change or that may not exist in another couple years—or that don’t even exist yet. So we’re working to maximize students’ flexibility while working with our community partners to provide them with the additional hands-on opportunities they learn from in that way.”

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Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 14, Issue 3 (February 2024).

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Author: Madeleine Maccar


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