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Making a case for liberal arts

UR students learn problem-solving skills

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Print this page by Karin Kapsidelis
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Anthony Russell says that from liberal arts, students learn to interpret
complex issues. Photo by Caroline Martin

University of Richmond sophomore Jajsani Roane has always been passionate about art and science. 

When she graduated from the Henrico High School Center for the Arts outside Richmond, she had the opportunity to go to a large research university or an art school.

“It was tough making a decision between the two, but Richmond kind of fell between them,” she says.  “I knew I would be getting an academically rigorous curriculum, but I was also able to pursue my interest and passion in art.”

With a double major in art and environmental science, Roane already is steeped in both fields.  Last summer, she was awarded a research fellowship allowing her to work in the lab with a biology professor  studying applications of Agrobacterium tumefaciens, which causes crown gall disease in plants.

In January, she joined other students, faculty and alumni in downtown Richmond for an intensive two-day session called Arts in the Life of a City. The program was part of Arts & Sciences NEXT, a program that uses case studies on a variety of topics that help students explore contemporary issues in ways that show how their education might translate to a career.

Roane, whose art focuses on mixed media and illustration, says her team became so enthusiastic about its proposal for how to use art to enrich “the entire population, rather than just an arts district,” that she hopes it might be considered by city leaders.

Losing ground
Nationally, liberal-arts studies are losing ground to programs that tie degrees more directly to jobs at graduation, a consequence of rising college costs and student debt.

So many programs have been cut that the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the American Association of University Professors issued a joint warning last year about the threat to courses once universally viewed as central to the intellectual life of academia.

“We are fighting the good fight,” says Anthony Russell, associate professor of English and coordinator of the Italian Studies Program at UR.  He chaired a committee on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship that proposed collaborative courses and projects for students and faculty across disciplines to work on real-world problems.

The value that students gain from the liberal arts, he says, is the ability to interpret and write critically about complex issues. Students learn problem-solving skills that are important for today’s workforce, he says.

That’s not always clear to the public, he says. “Because liberal-arts colleges cost so much, parents want to see more tangible, quantifiable skills in their student when they graduate.”

Tuition alone at UR in the 2019-20 academic year will be $54,690. The estimated cost of attendance, including tuition, books, room and meals, will be $69,750.

Promise to Virginia
The university’s endowment — thanks to a $50 million gift from Richmond business leader E. Claiborne Robins in 1969 when the institution was struggling to survive — was valued at more than $2.5 billion as of June 30.

That financial underpinning has allowed the university to be one of the few in the nation with a “need-blind” admission policy.  The term refers to schools that do not consider an applicant’s financial situation in deciding admission. The university’s total enrollment this year is more than 4,000, with 80 percent of undergraduates coming from outside Virginia.

To make the school more accessible to middle-income students, UR awards full scholarships to Virginians with parental income of $60,000 or less. For the current school year, 30 first-year students received the scholarships, with 103 recipients overall in the entire student body.

Since the income threshold was raised from $40,000 to $60,000 for fall 2014, the program, known as Richmond’s Promise to Virginia, has made 422 awards, including recurring scholarships to students who continue to study at the university, according to Cynthia Price, director of media and public relations.

Preparing for work
Price points to an array of programs designed to prepare students for the work world, such as the Queally Center, which integrates career services with the offices of admission and financial aid. 

The center also focuses on “employer development” services, such as facilitating employment interviews for graduating students and implementing internship programs.

In 2015, the university started a program guaranteeing each student up to $4,000 to help pay for summer research and internship opportunities.  An average of 575 students have been awarded funding each year.

Other programs include Spider Shadowing, which allows students to learn from UR alumni about various career paths; Q-Camp, which introduces business-school students to practical exercises in professional skills; and the Jepson Edge Institute, which offers interactive sessions for leadership-studies students with alumni.

Russell, who was the faculty facilitator for the NEXT program’s arts in the city sequence, says the university is taking steps to clarify the practical connections between the study of liberal arts and the real world.

For Roane, that connection already has been made.

The liberal arts, she says, expose students to a wide variety of topics. That exposure is especially helpful for those who come into college not knowing what they want to study.

They can explore options, find their passions and get direction on how to pursue their goals, she says.  They are more competitive in job interviews because they “are a more interesting, more well-rounded person” and “know a lot of approaches to solving problems.”

With the evolving economy, Roane says, “it’s very important to have a wide range of skills.  People are basically making their own jobs and making their own place for themselves in the industry.”

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