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As the last remaining sophomores dropped their concentration forms into the registrar's unceremonious black bin last week, the University concluded a month-long program intended to help students connect their concentrations to real-world careers.

In the program's pilot year, Brown Degree Days "exceeded expectations," hosting over 30 events that attracted high student attendance, said Associate Dean of the College for Upperclass Studies Karen Krahulik.

For example, at least 72 students attended the Brown Degree Day hosted by the physics department, according to  Chung-I Tan, professor of physics and chair of the department. A luncheon with over 30 alums, a roundtable discussion and three guest lectures created "a very interactive environment," in which students learned about what they could do with a physics degree, said Associate Professor of Physics Meenakshi Narain, who helped organize the event.   

The concept for Degree Days was developed after a successful alumni panel organized by the English department last year, Krahulik said. Last fall, Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron met with members of the Task Force on Undergraduate Education to discuss hosting a new series of alumni panels to improve the curricular advising system, Krahulik said.

The result was a month of events starting in mid-March with former concentrators in fields from physics to art, designed to get students thinking about "both the obvious and the not-so-obvious" ways to apply their liberal arts degrees, Krahulik said.

"It's always comforting to hear the voices of alumni on campus, because they suggest that career pathways don't have to be so linear," said Erinn Phelan '09, who attended and helped organize the second-to-last Brown Degree Day last Tuesday night about careers in public service.

The event, titled "Living an Engaged Life," brought together alums from diverse concentrations. Their advice testified to Phelan's idea that career paths are constantly in flux.

Saeromi Kim '96, a psychology concentrator who now works as a clinical psychologist at Rhode Island College's Counseling Center, said the conflict between her personal desires and others' expectations never quite goes away.

"It took a lot of guts to choose clinical work," she said during the roundtable discussion Tuesday.

Likewise, Mary-Kim Arnold '93 MFA'98, an English concentrator as an undergraduate, said her new role as executive director of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities has sparked a change in perspective.

"I'm on an anti-balance campaign," Arnold said during the discussion. "Who needs balance when you love what you do?"

While Tuesday's event suggested that a diverse range of concentrations can prepare students for work in the non-profit sector, a panel hosted by the Department of Visual Art demonstrated the diversity of careers that can result from a single
concentration.

Dave Cole's '00 sculpting career represented a more traditional way of applying a visual arts degree. He said accomplishing difficult sculpture projects — like an enormous fiberglass teddy bear — requires sustained effort and intensity, including pulling all-nighters when necessary. "Emotional balance is for the mediocre and the lazy," he said.

Clay Rockefeller '03, who works at the Steel Yard, a public art cooperative, stressed the importance of risk-taking. "I always had faith in my ability to start over," he said. "We're all going to live many different lives in one."

Will Machin '00, who produces public art on commission, told current students that feelings of uncertainty and doubt linger even after graduation. "I still wonder if I'm good enough to make art," Machin said.

This honesty provoked varied reaction among students. Quinn Fenlon '10.5 said the fact that, even 10 years out of college, professionals do not necessarily have their careers figured out "doesn't make me feel any better."

The Career Development Center, which partnered with the Office of the Dean of the College and Alumni Relations to implement the program, is still in the process of gathering statistics about student attendance at the Degree Days events, said Barbara Peoples, senior associate director of the Career Development Center.

Indeed, Brown Degree Days assumed another level of importance for seniors confronting the job market next year. Rachel Moranis '09, an art history concentrator, said the state of the economy contributed to her interest in the Visual Art panel.

"A lot of my friends are losing their jobs right now," she said. "I want to hear stories about what people in the art realm are doing."

The alums' reflections about their own non-linear career paths helped reassure Phelan, whose future plans were abruptly altered when her job offer was rescinded. She said the lack of job options in the current economy has liberated her from external pressure to follow the "standard trajectory" for the first years out of college.

The testimonies of the panelists reinforced Phelan's belief that "as long as you do something you learn from and are passionate about, that's enough," she said. "It's a very freeing idea."


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