My good friend Jacob Martin asked me to say a few words about being 70 years in the making and sitting among Case Western Reserve University undergraduates in various classes. My first observation is how polite and civil the CWRU students are. Never have I been on a college campus—and I have been on the campuses of Cornell, Harvard, Clark, John Carroll (as a teacher), Cleveland State, Bowling Green and Findlay College (as a teacher)—and experienced such courtesy. My second observation is that CWRU students are a whole lot better prepared for college than I was in 1963 as a freshman at Cornell. It is an honor and a privilege to be here. It is also a bit intimidating.
I also observe something that I find both amusing and a bit frightening. I hear students talking about taking many credit hours, such as 18 or 21 per semester. I also hear some talking about double majors and multiple minors. I certainly admire the willingness they have to work diligently, to amass knowledge by the bucket-load, and to build a “heavy” transcript. Credentials are important. Frankly, if I had had the energy as an undergraduate I might have done the same. Looking back, I am thankful that I did not have that energy.
What concerns me about these heavy loads comes from my 25 years in the executive search business, and my general experience working after college. What happens is this: a student graduates and gets a great job. That is what the degree does, it gets the student the interview and an inside track on a great career. Once a student is hired, his or her transcript becomes (almost) irrelevant. The boss cares little now about a major or minor. What the boss cares about today is what his new employee did today to make money for the firm. So the employer trains the new employee to do the job at hand. That job changes continuously and will not look anything like the person’s major or minor in a very few years. Actually, most new grads are hired into jobs that do not look anything like their majors or minors.
As a third party recruiter I was never impressed by multiple majors or minors. What impressed me was cum laude or magna cum laude or summa cum laude. If the extra work for the extra major or minor brings down the GPA even by a tenth of a point, it does more harm than good. Working hard is not necessarily admirable. Being focused and producing a quality result is worthy.
What I wanted to see in a transcript and a résumé was a solid performance in any subject, a balance of elective courses, some evidence of socializing and some evidence of leadership. I also wanted some indication that the individual had a balanced life while at college. Individuals who spent four years in a library or laboratory might be more suited for the academic track than a business or professional career.
What might be terribly difficult to see while in college preparing for a career is the inevitability of change. A career goes in the direction that circumstance and choice drives it. We are faced with the need to learn new skills every day. If we were fortunate in college, what we really learned was how to learn efficiently. If a career is going well it offers the possibility and the challenge of growth. The subject we studied in college we might bring along with us, but it becomes less and less the driving force in developing a satisfying career as that career evolves and we grow and move on.
When asked “What should I study?” I always respond: “Follow your passion.” In the process of following your passion you will be guided by the dedicated faculty at CWRU. When you come through the tunnel of these four years you shall have turned out just fine. Get the grade and take time to enjoy the trip.
Ted Howard is retired from a career in Executive Search. He is a husband, a father, a dancer, a pilot, a golfer, a gardener and a student of Latin and Greek and their respective cultures at CWRU. He majored in English (BA) at Cornell and took an MBA at Clark. A good day includes a morning of Latin, an afternoon of golf and an evening of Tango.