Unexpected career change and what it might mean for reform in higher education.
Mercedes Carota NU’10 and Jim Stellar
Mercedes Carota is a Business Student at Northeastern. She should have graduated, but stayed on to complete premedical requirements after a career change in her junior year. Mercedes was also a member of a team of students that Jim was encouraging in his time as Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northeastern to work on experiential education projects and help the College think about how to refine its programs.
This blog post is in two parts. First is Mercedes’ story as a student learning from experience in a compelling moment. Second is our interpretation in terms of “otherlobe” thinking and a few conclusions for higher education.
It was my second “formal” co-op, and by now my eyes had fully adjusted to the fluorescent lights that enveloped my cube. There I was at my dream job. Marketing for one of the largest consumer product companies in the world …. doing real work in a global environment … just what I had dreamed of. Well, it should have been. But, that Wednesday afternoon I realized it was not; it could never be.
Wednesday, June 11th, 2008 remains as a vivid memory. Although, as vivid of a memory as it is, I cannot recall the litany of tasks that consumed this day, but those are of little importance now. I do remember the moment I froze. This feeling is still lucid. The fluorescent lights were annoying me. This job was not me. I could not do this for the rest of my life. I remember actually making this statement aloud and a wave of relief washed over me. I knew this was the end of my consumer product days.
As a child, I was constantly reminded of how difficult it was to be accepted into veterinary school. I was a very determined child and never let what other people said influence me; except for this. At the time, I lacked the poise and assurance required to disregard these unsettling comments. I empowered the myopic views of other people and convinced myself I was incapable of becoming a veterinarian. This has taken me awhile to admit and even longer to admit in writing.
I volunteer now at a shelter in Boston and it is by far the most rewarding experience I have ever had in my life. Although I am unpaid, there is not a day that I wake up and do not look forward to the shelter. This is the first place I have worked at where the hours seem to melt away while I make a difference in the lives of hundreds of abandoned and abused animals.
If I could do it all over again, I would not. I have had wonderful experiences that have shaped who I am and will shape the veterinarian I will become.
You blog readers know the drill. We think that in addition to the cognitive computations based on fact and theories of how one is doing on the job (evaluations, raises, success markers), there is a second process embedded in the limbic system that takes this cognitive information and makes value or other such (what Damasio calls) body wellness sense judgments about them. Is this career path good for me? Is it what I want? Given a certain disconnection with the verbal process which we used to project our consciousness and which defines a good deal of how we think, it often comes as a surprise that something is wrong. Read above again where Mercedes writes about the fluorescent lights were annoying her and the wave of relief she felt when she said to herself that this was not her job. Truly, the heart does have reasons of which reason does not know (our often used quote from Pascal). In this moment, we see her heart speaking to her head.
Experiential Education is like that. When you are in the experience, and even when you recall it later, the heart often reacts. Then it seems that the cognitive mind is aware of what is happening and when the two streams can come together, a decision is made. Of course the second part of this story is the positive experience of the alternative. That tends to back-color the first experience. It even happens to you as you read the story.
So what would Mercedes and I have higher educational institutions do to help deal with this double learning? Of course, we would have a variety of experiences for students to try out to see if that was their career, to test the “heart reasons” against the cognitive reasons. Then we would build reflection into the process where students could re-live the experience by talking about it to analyze both the cognitive stream and to allow the limbic stream to do the computation again (whatever that means) integrating the two streams. Mentoring is key here and often the academic faculty and the institutions that hire them do not recognize sufficiently the power that faculty members have in education by so engaging with students. They think that their responsibility ends with the learning they have wrought in the classroom. So as a third item, we would develop assessment mechanisms to see how this mentoring-based integration occurred and thus permit the providers to see how to improve the process. That assessment would focus on the emotional-logic circuits that we have been writing about in this blog based on our experiences and our reading, e.g. Damasio (post on 2/2/09), Gladwell (post on 7/19/09) and get at the way it interacted with deep content knowledge.