09/04/2012 06:22 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

Pop the Bubble! Are Liberal Arts Institutions Doing Enough to Prepare Students Socially?


Last week, I found myself in the hallowed grounds of Marlboro College's Rice-Aron Library catching up with a senior who was waxing on animatedly about his academic plans for his final year. I asked him about his anticipated life post-graduation and he faltered a bit.

"I actually have this grand plan, but I need to be more comfortable physically so I can really tell you about it."

Before I could reply, he climbed up onto the table, laid down flat on his back and swung his feet -- coated in mud from a morning rain shower -- up onto the rich cherry wood. And, sure enough, he expounded on his grand plan complete with intentions of a summer internship in Boston and applications to a demanding graduate program.

The voices in my head could be quantified thusly:
40 percent - Ken Schneck, dean of students, dedicated, listening attentively
30 percent - Terri Schneck, my mom, aghast, yelling at him to get his dirty feet off the table
30 percent - Barack Obama, my president, stern, chastising me for creating a future workforce of dirty feet on tables.

In this current age of constantly justifying the existence and importance of liberal-arts colleges, our defense mechanisms are usually centered on asserting that our students are supremely employable due to their ability to think outside the box, work in teams and creatively solve problems. The academics and structure of liberal arts institutions ensure that one of our corporate or non-profit job-seeking alums stand out in the applicant pool. But are we doing enough to prepare them socially for life outside the liberal arts bubble?

It's beyond great that we create such social-convention-challenging, gender-and-LGBT-affirming, free-spirit-fostering, one-million-ways-to-use-the-word-esoteric, anti-status-quo havens, but are we also irresponsible in creating an alternate reality that our students must one day leave? Simply asking the question may strike some as subscribing to elitism, but isn't our role to prepare students even as we protect them? Some thoughts:

Teach social etiquette right alongside resume/cover letter creation. Yes, you should be able to answer interview questions, but you should also know how to eat soup while detailing a challenging experience that you've overcome, how to dress for an interview during an Arizona heat wave and how to appropriately accessorize with that tattoo you can't quite cover up. I've seen some amazing partnerships between Career Services offices and Dining Services, all with the attempt to stress that the social aspect of job-seeking is just as important as the knowledge base.

Connect students with alums. Our current students are not the only ones who must address the shock of leaving the bubble. Others have done it before them. Invite alums back not just to talk about job opportunities in their field, but also to talk specifically about social life outside of the liberal arts nirvana. What are homophobia, racism, sexism really like in the workforce? Hearing from their peers would make a world of difference to our current students.

Identify other bubbles outside of the liberal arts bubble. And then there's the part where I'm a total hypocrite. Here I sit with my earrings, sandals, and Aquaman t-shirt, wondering if I'm a little too dressy today. Physician, heal thyself! As I can attest, there are places outside of the bubble in which the unique reality of a liberal arts college exists as the best possible groundwork socially. There are dog-friendly, bare-feet-encouraged, you-can-be-late-if-your-spoken-word-event-went-long-last-night places to be employed. You just have to help students find them.

The oasis of a liberal arts institution can be as comforting as it is supportive to students' development. But, unless you're making the commitment to hire every alum, they have to someday leave the oasis. What are you doing to prepare them for that? Let us know in the comments section below.