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UND dean aims to point majors toward careers

GRAND FORKS — Several years ago, Debbie Storrs decided to quit her job as a medical transcriptionist and head back to college. Her father said that was the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.

“He said, ‘Debbie, you are walking away from retirement benefits and health insurance, two things I never had,’” she recalled. “If you go back, you better major in business.”

When she told him she couldn’t do that because she hated the subject, he asked, “What will you do?”

That question, posed to countless humanities graduates over the decades, is one that Storrs hopes to better resolve as the new dean of the University of North Dakota’s College of Arts and Sciences. This fall, 3,013 students enrolled in the college, which encompasses social sciences, arts and the natural sciences, and is the university’s largest college.

Faculty members are asking employers what skills they seek in college graduates, and community and tribal colleges are also offering Storrs their ideas on what they believe the college’s priorities should be. All of this information will contribute to her strategic plan for the college, she said.

Her main goal is to help students understand the skills a liberal arts education teaches them and market that to employers, she said.

“We have to break down the dichotomy between liberal arts and career development,” she said. “They’re connected. We just have to be more intentional about doing that.”

Prep for the future

Universities today are focusing more than ever on career preparation and student graduation and retention rates, Storrs said.

Research shows a need for these efforts. The Chronicle of Higher Education recently found that employers felt about 31 percent of new graduates were unprepared or very unprepared for their job searches, she said.

Plus, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce estimates that 9 percent of recent humanities students nationwide are unemployed after they graduate — about 2 percent higher than the average for all majors. The college has a responsibility to help prepare students get jobs, she said.

“One of the areas we have to tend to is helping our students become career-ready while still valuing what the liberal arts is about,” she said.

Students who enroll in social sciences represent the college’s highest percentage of majors — 33 percent — while humanities majors represent 11 percent, Storrs said. Regardless of their majors, the college needs to help students pursue more internships that further their career goals.

Communication is another skill that students need to hone to improve their employability.

Employers say students who choose STEM careers — science, technology, engineering and math — often don’t know how to effectively communicate their science-based knowledge to a broader audience, she said.

“We have to provide students with a wide range of skills,” she said.

Personal tale

Storrs is drawing from her own experience.

A first-generation college student in Alaska, she was raised by a father who didn’t have a high school diploma. Her mother, a Japanese immigrant, had a high school degree, she said.

Her parents couldn’t afford to support her college education, and pushed her to major in business because “like many Americans, they don’t understand the value of a liberal arts education,” she said.

After attending the University of Alaska, she majored in business and found she hated it because she wasn’t committed to it, she said. She quit and started work at the state’s psychiatric hospital as a medical transcriptionist.

In the conversation with her father, she’d told him that she considered a major in sociology. He didn’t realize that sociologists learn how to be critical thinkers and analyze and study data, and those are the skills employers say they want most in new graduates, she said.

Storrs, who later went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology, said the conversation she’d had with her father was typical. Part of her job is to help parents understand the value of a liberal arts education — if the college doesn’t help provide students with skill sets needed for employers, “their parents aren’t going to support them,” she said.

During her undergraduate years, she went on to take a number of general education courses, including art appreciation and cultural anthropology, and she felt that experience “changed my life,” she said. Unfortunately, her father died young, so she never got to tell him everything worked out, she said.

“Those courses opened up my world, helped me see things differently, encouraged me to ask new questions,” she said. “This was an investment in myself and my future.”

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit 

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