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Higher Education—It Goes Beyond the Classroom

Insights & Ideas Team •  December 14, 2015 | Business and Careers

By Karl Gouverneur, chief technology officer at Northwestern Mutual.

GouverneurbWith rising college costs, many have questioned the worth of traditional higher education. While expense is certainly a concern, I recently had an experience that demonstrated the value, and enduring relevance, of the university experience.

I had the pleasure of working with a group of students to produce a TEDx event at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. If you’re not familiar with TEDx, these are independently organized local events that bring together a variety of speakers on thought-provoking topics. They’re modeled on the TED conferences that draw international leaders each year to hear short talks on what they call "ideas worth spreading.”

My initial goal in being involved was to mentor these student volunteers, who brought passion and commitment to their work over many months. But the engagement proved very enlightening for me, too. One reason was the speakers themselves—more than a dozen who presented diverse ideas with emotion and passion, but reason as well.

The presentations were all impressive, but there’s one that my mind keeps coming back to again and again. It was by Pardeep Kaleka, a young man whose father was among the victims of a mass shooting at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, where I live. For some background, read here.

As Pardeep discussed the impact of this crime on his family, his religious community and his chosen path in life, it was impossible not to be moved. He is a teacher and has created an organization whose purpose is to bring youth from different backgrounds together in order to forge greater understanding and compassion and to promote service to others. Pardeep’s ongoing dedication to peace in the face of this almost unimaginable tragedy was a reminder that, even when events are utterly out of our control, we still can choose to create a positive response. It’s a powerful message and one I will seek to carry out in my own life.

That’s not the only lesson the student organizers took from the event. My focus as their mentor was to help them understand how to collaborate in a business setting, as opposed to sharing ideas as a student in a classroom. They had to give and receive feedback, delegate tasks and even deal with bad news along the way. Over the course of several months, it was gratifying to watch them develop from uncertain students to young professionals ready for today’s competitive workplace.

I think all of us who get to a certain stage in our careers owe it to those just starting out to give some mentorship and guidance. Naturally, as a technology leader I tend to focus on developing new professionals in my chosen field, but I think it’s important to go beyond that. Our nation will require workers with strong technical skills, to be sure. But we also need individuals with broad perspectives, critical thinking skills and analytical abilities.

Students will get exposure to all of these in the classroom. But it’s when they engage in broader activities, and immerse themselves in a community effort, that their learning can rise to a higher level. As parents, mentors and educators, let’s encourage students to embrace not just their studies, but also the wide range of new experiences they can find on college campuses. They’re a big part of why higher education still has relevance as we develop the leaders of tomorrow. 

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