Teaching a Leader

Career-minded college students (or their concerned and hovering parents) are always in search of surefire ways to make their résumés and transcripts stand out as they try to elbow out classmates for full-time jobs after graduation.

June 15, 2010

Career-minded college students (or their concerned and hovering parents) are always in search of surefire ways to make their résumés and transcripts stand out as they try to elbow out classmates for full-time jobs after graduation.

Beyond the grades, internships, student organizations, majors and minors that give employers a sense of what students have learned and what they might be able to do, the University of Iowa will this fall add a seven-course certificate in leadership studies, aimed at making students more attractive to hiring managers in a down economy.

“Leadership is one of the top skills employers say they are looking for looking for,” said Kelley C. Ashby, director of the Career Leadership Academy in the university’s Pomerantz Career Center, which already offers four classes on leadership. “We want students to have the academic component -- various theories of leadership -- and we also want students to have practical experience to apply what we’re teaching them.”

Though the university and its College of Business had for years offered courses on leadership to undergraduates, students and parents seemed to want more, “to know that classes and experiences could translate into something tangible on their transcript,” said David Baumgartner, assistant dean and director of the career center.

Other institutions, including Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin at Madison, have in the last decade or so introduced leadership certificates open to undergraduates in more than just their business schools.

At Iowa, the certificate will consist of 21 credits -- the equivalent of seven standard Iowa courses. All students will be required to take a core course, “Perspectives on Leadership: Principles and Practices,” developed by faculty in the university’s business, communication studies, education, political science and philosophy departments, as well as by Ashby and a representative of the university’s Office of Student Life. They will also have to choose one pre-approved course from each of the following areas: self leadership, group leadership, communication, cultural competency, and ethics and integrity.

After a student has taken at least three courses, he or she can take on three credits of “experiential course work” -- an internship, on-campus leadership position, or service-learning course. The hope is that the theories of leadership that students learn in the courses will be put into immediate use in leadership positions.

While students generally dive into internships, resident assistant positions or student group presidencies without any specific knowledge on leadership, Ashby said, “we want there to be more intention about why they do what they do when they’re in those positions.”

Ashby said she anticipates that about 50 students will sign up for the core course this fall, but expects that, within a few years, as many as 300 undergraduates might be pursuing the certificate at any one time. So far, she added, there’s no clear pattern of who’s expressing the most interest -- no glut of liberal arts majors hoping to make themselves more employable, and no onslaught of hypercompetitive business majors.

“It’s for students where it’s difficult to see, ‘Where’s my first job?’ and not just for the management majors,” she said. “It’s for the nursing major trying to connect the dots, the student interested in nonprofit management.” The program is being housed in University College, which she described as Iowa’s “kind of miscellaneous college,” rather than being pigeonholed into the College of Business, where the career center is based.

Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said that while “a lot of employers aren’t going to know what this leadership certificate means, a student’s ability to describe or demonstrate what they’ve learned and done could be useful.” At the same time, she added, the certificate could “help the student convey to the employer what they can do.”

But leadership isn’t employers’ top priority in hiring recent graduates, said Ed Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In his group’s latest survey of employers, leadership skills ranked “about 10th on the list -- there are other things employers find more important.”

While the certificate could be “a good idea to the extent that employers looking for leadership would point to the certificate on your resume to say that you ‘have it,’ ” Koc said, “it doesn’t give you a big leg up unless it’s something you’re able to leverage in your interview, if you get one.”


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