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Let’s face it, the educational system in the United States sometimes seems confusing. One concept that international students and their parents might struggle to understand is liberal arts education. Questions are common: What is a liberal arts education? What advantages are there to studying liberal arts? What kinds of jobs and careers do liberal arts graduates find?

Quick quiz: What do Jack Ma (CEO of Alibaba), Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla, SpaceX, Boring Company), and the CEOs of Starbucks, HBO, and Disney, and hundreds of other leaders around the world have in common? They all studied liberal arts programs in university!

The term “liberal arts” originated in Ancient Rome and Greece, where liberal arts subjects were those a free person (from the Latin: liberalis) needed to know to participate actively in civic life. The Greeks divided these topics into a core of grammar, logic and rhetoric, with geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music theory forming the basis of a citizen’s education. In the centuries since, these courses formed the foundation of Western education. While times have changed, the goal of a liberal arts education remains the same.

Liberal arts today

For students who have not studied in this kind of environment, the philosophy behind a liberal arts education can be hard to understand. In many countries outside the United States, university students focus on one specific subject to become very proficient in the area needed for their potential career. According to Ken Anselment, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Lawrence University in Wisconsin, liberal arts education today seeks to test “our ability to investigate and understand the nature of an organism, the application of a theory, the behavior of a crowd, the principles and ethics of a political system, the meaning of a poem, the cause of an event, the consequence of a decision, or the composition of a symphony.” While that explanation covers a lot of ground, Maria Furtado, Executive Director of Colleges That Change Lives, describes liberal arts this way: “It gets scientists into arts and humanities classes; it gets artists into labs.”

Although these descriptions may seem very idealistic, Anselment sees real-world applications as well. Classes in philosophy, history, English literature, political science and other liberal arts subjects “add value to any academic course of study.” He believes that the skill sets students develop in these courses create better rounded individuals, which benefits all students including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and business majors.

Anselment remarked, “It’s one thing to be a competent engineer — it’s an entirely different thing to be a competent engineer who has the social skills and mental mindset to find common ground with others, make a compelling argument, write purposefully and persuasively, and draw on multiple disciplines to create solutions to problems.” What do employers want in future employees? Furtado agrees that people who do the hiring want new staff to have “the ability to think well (creatively and critically), to communicate well in writing and in person, to analyze data and problem-solve creatively.”

Career possibilities for liberal arts majors

Parents tend to think most about what careers their sons and daughters will pursue once they have completed their university educations. Parents who are unfamiliar with the liberal arts model of education might find it hard to understanding where an art or a history degree from a U.S. college will lead. So the natural question is, what can a student with an English or a political science degree do except teach? Anselment quickly points out that many CEOs of top-performing companies in the United States and abroad were educated in the liberal arts. Significantly, according to Anselment, “the number of global figures, industry leaders, and innovators who got their start with the liberal arts and sciences continues to surprise even me. Elon Musk? A physics and economics major — not an engineering and business major. He’s a great example of the person who lives in that creative space between the disciplines — and finds it to be the place where big ideas can happen.”

U.S. colleges and universities have significant campus resources to help students find the right career paths before they complete their degrees. Academic advisors and university faculty play important roles for new students, especially internationals, to see what is possible. At many institutions, from a student’s first term, advisors help students find the right academic program if they are unsure which major is the best fit with who they are, what they enjoy, and what they want to be. Because the modern-day workplace is constantly evolving with new kinds of jobs created every year, advisors focus on matching student’s majors with broad categories of careers. In Anselment’s opinion, “It’s important for students in college to be equipped with skills and a mindset that allows them to be flexible, nimble, and entrepreneurial — ready to adapt to a rapidly changing environment.”

Another vital place on campus that assists students with their future job choices is the career and professional development office. Occasionally, students know what they want to study when they arrive at university and even what kind of job they want in four years. More typically, students change academic majors during their first two years, which can mean a lot of uncertainty as to what is possible when it comes to future careers. On campus, professional development offices provide different forms of personal interest tests (Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder, DISC, etc.) to assist students to find their preferences and strengths.

Anselment concluded, “Those inventories can help open students up to possibilities that they may not have considered.” These offices can also play a significant role in preparing students for entering the job market. As Furtado remarks, “Often [career offices] will connect students to alumni in fields of interest or bring employers to campus for interviewing. They may even facilitate interviews or help students get to local job fairs.”

Other resources for international students

Many written articles are available to help international students and their parents better understand how liberal arts classes, degrees, and colleges can enhance a U.S. education. One example, written by an international student, is 3 Benefits for International Students at Liberal Arts Colleges. This article focuses on three key advantages to liberal arts: mentorships with professors, improved writing skills and a well-rounded education.

To make informed decisions, be certain to understand what “liberal arts” means. Another U.S. News & World Report Education article, 4 Facts for International Students About Liberal Arts, covers the most striking features of a liberal arts education. In that article, students describe realizing they will take multiple liberal arts classes, be required to interact in their classes for a portion of their grade, learn outside the classroom daily and become a more well-rounded person.

Speaking with friends or former classmates who currently study in the United States can reveal what is possible for someone with a similar background. By keeping an open mind to U.S. colleges and universities and the career doors that a liberal arts education can open, international students can become free people who actively participate in civic life.