The National Conversation

Retooling Work-Integrated Learning

Buildings shot from ground

Funded by a Lumina Foundation grant, Bennington turns inward to study its work curriculum as seriously as its on-campus curriculum. What the College finds is helping to reveal the way forward for Field Work Term by Jeva Lange ’15. 

Who do you know?

How you answer that question could mean everything when it comes to looking for a job. Maybe it is about knowing a CEO in your industry, or having a relative who can introduce you to a friend in the business. Maybe it is as simple as having a parent who went to college, and who knows what it takes to write a successful résumé or cover letter.

The question stands for something entirely different at Bennington these days. It is a reminder that when it comes to looking for a job, students’ networks are anything but equal. And it is a challenge—as the global workforce is rapidly being reshaped, there will be more opportunities for people who don’t know the right people to succeed, too.

They just need to have the tools to do so.

Part 1
The Robots Are Coming!

Computer animations are replacing news anchors in China. claims accountants are “doomed,” with a 94-percent chance of their jobs becoming automated to the point of human irrelevance. Even fast food workers could be phased out within decades, with AI software such as Flippy serving burgers to customers in California. And that’s just what we can see coming now— who knows what it will be like in 2030 or 2040?

Naturally this presents a conundrum for colleges and universities across the country. In preparing new generations for the future now, it is no longer clear what knowledge will be useful down the line. How do we teach students what they need to know for tomorrow, when no one even knows what tomorrow will look like? “Many of the positions in the future of work will be entirely new and actually unimaginable at this juncture,” explained Faith McClellan, director of Field Work Term and Career Development.

Bennington, though, has been at the forefront of preparing students for work beyond the classroom since its founding in 1932. With more than 85 years of effectively preparing college students for careers and craft through Field World Term, Bennington is well positioned to explore questions of equity and gainful employment in the digital age.

Sensing this opportunity, the Lumina Foundation, a nonprofit based in Indianapolis awarded Bennington College a $100,000 planning grant in 2017 to do a preliminary dive into understanding the challenges of the digital age college, and student equity as it pertains to “work-integrated learning.” This concept is an emerging study—popular internationally and now gaining traction in the United States—of how experiential learning, integrated with students’ academic study and development, serves to enhance learning outcomes such as complex reasoning, problem-solving, and leadership development. Work-integrated learning includes the many opportunities for field learning offered through Field Work Term, including internships, apprenticeships, professional certifications, entrepreneurial ventures, community service, research projects, and now, work study jobs.

The Lumina study, which concluded during the summer, was headed by faculty members Robert Ransick and Debbie Warnock and has already resulted in a tangible shift in how Bennington understands Field Work Term’s place at the heart of the undergraduate experience. “We came in thinking about Field Work Term,” said Isabel Roche, the provost and dean of the College. But as the Lumina study progressed, the College understood that Field Work Term alone was too narrow a focus. “This is really about work and all of the opportunities students have to engage with work and reflect upon their learning during their time at Bennington,” Roche emphasized.

Part 2
What Works as "Work"? 

The McKinsey Global Institute in 2017 estimated that up to 14 percent of the global workforce—as many as 375 million people—will soon be forced to “switch occupational their [jobs] evolve alongside increasingly capable machines.” While only a small handful of jobs have been lost to automation during the past several decades, we are now on the cusp of a rapid and devastating rejiggering of the global workforce. As a result, employers are increasingly interested in what are known as “soft skills,” the likes of which are far more difficult to lose out to robots.

But concerning—a 2015 study released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that less than 30 percent of employers think college graduates are prepared in key skill areas, such as being able to “analyze and solve complex problems.” Enter Bennington’s curriculum: designed from the beginning to encourage self-directed, intersectional learning. Bennington has long understood that skill development occurs through work— specifically through an experience of learning in action that teaches and refines soft skills, offers iterative opportunities to try out new types of field work, and integrates learning through reflective practice. Emerging research also highlights the value of soft-skill preparation through experiences outside the classroom, as cited in a 2016 national study published in the NACE Journal. This study highlighted soft-skill development in areas such as teamwork, communication, decision making, problem solving, organization, and analyzing quantitative data.

In a context in which soft-skill development is increasingly critical to distinguish from Artificial Intelligence capacity, colleges and universities nationwide are reimagining how to effectively and efficiently teach these work-based competencies. At Bennington, this effort now focuses on teaching workreadiness soft skills across a four-year developmental curriculum, starting with first-year engagement, and extending into the diffuse aspects of learning through work. Roche explains how this involved casting aside an arbitrary distinction between Field Work Term and campus work: “In the national landscape of career development, there tends to be—and I wouldn’t exclude us—a kind of bifurcation about the kind of work that has learning value. At Bennington, we were focusing on Field Work Term as the place where students were doing the work that ‘mattered,’ and then there’s this other work that students are doing for money, because they’re on Federal Work Study, or because they’re interested in it—as if all these things weren’t also forms of learning.” Roche explained. “It was like a lightbulb moment for me. We need to really think about work at Bennington in all of its dimensions.”

Structurally, that meant there needed to be some changes. If all work students did was valuable—not just their winter internships—then the College needed to broaden the definition of what it considered “work integrated learning” opportunities. Offices were subsequently reorganized: Student employment, which had been under the Office of Student Life, was moved into the Office of Field Work Term and Career Development, emphasizing the importance of developmental career education that occurs throughout four years of campus work. The Office has also partnered with CAPA to triple the number of off-campus community-service opportunities paid for through Federal Work Study.

But will digital hiring processes really eliminate the problem presented by elite networking and pedigree?

In folding student employment under career development, Bennington is following the lead of numerous top institutions who recognize the importance of learning through campus work. McClellan noted, “We followed the lead of model programs overhauling their student-employment programs to emphasize high-quality supervision, regular feedback and evaluation, leadership opportunities, and supports to high need students to obtain and sustain the most competitive campus jobs. With these changes, we are helping students realize that working in a work-study position, you can gain significant and valuable skills.”

Further, by housing campus work opportunities under the Field Work Term office, students would be more attuned to how the skills they were learning on the job—even if that job is working in the dining hall or library—fit into their skill set for future careers. “What we found was the type of work doesn’t matter so much as how good you are at talking about the work that you’ve done,” Warnock elaborated.

With more than 85 years of research into how to effectively prepare college students for careers through Field Work Term, perhaps no school was better positioned to explore questions of equity and gainful employment in the digital age.

While working in the campus bookstore, for example, might not seem glamorous, you don’t necessarily need to be a Goldman Sachs intern to get noticed by potential employers. What is more important is how effectively you present and talk about your work, as well as how sufficiently you identify the skills you gleaned from it.

Part 3
Playing Fair

Another recent focus for Field Work Term has been to increase financial access to superior quality field learning experiences. This stemmed from a pressing concern to arise out of the Lumina research: issues of unequal access when it comes to early work experience.

“When most or many internships are unpaid, that becomes a significant challenge for students who don’t have financial means to take advantage of those kinds of opportunities, and limits where they perhaps can do their work, whether that’s in an urban center that’s more expensive or someplace that’s not near a family home,” Ransick explained. “These are things that Bennington is already quite aware of.”

In looking at the way other colleges run similar work-integrated learning programs during the Lumina planning research, financial support for students was an area of top focus. In a one-day conference organized by Bennington College in collaboration with Lumina Vice President of Strategy Debra Humphreys, Bennington’s team huddled with Massachusetts’ Mount Holyoke College, California’s University of La Verne, Illinois’ Governors State University, and the University of Wisconsin Whitewater in Indianapolis in November 2017 to share how each program incorporated work-related learning into their curriculum.

“There was really helpful and constructive letting down of the guard,” Roche recalled. “Nobody felt like we were competing in the room like, ‘We have the best version of this! Here’s why you should do it our way!’ It was everybody saying, ‘We all believe equally that this is incredibly important and let’s figure out how to do it even better at our institutions.’”

At Mount Holyoke, a new work-integrated learning program in the digital age called “Lynk” connects students to job training, industry visits, and alumni in their field, with guaranteed funding of $3,000 for domestic students and $3,600 for international students for summer internships and research. A “community-based learning” program exists at La Verne, with undergrads participating in a required 20 hours of service, with federal work study funds helping to support eligible students. Governors State allows students to earn credit by working in fields related to their major, while the University of Wisconsin Whitewater offers funding for students to participate in research projects, including a summer fellowship program that provides up to 15 students a stipend of $3,500 to work on faculty research and is expanding the frame to allow for other types of opportunities.

What is more important is how effectively you present and talk about your work, as well as how sufficiently you identify the skills you gleaned from it.

“[Bennington] is acutely aware of the cost of Field Work Term and also of limited resources to support Field Work Term grants and stipends,” McClellan reflected. “To support equity, this year the College has prioritized a streamlined system through which our highest need students will be guaranteed a $500 stipend for field work. Additionally, we have doubled the funding available for full pay fellowship programs for students demonstrating need and merit.” Perhaps most important of all, McClellan added, “In the last five years, the College has doubled the number of fully-paid opportunities and added supports to assist high need students in being competitive for these opportunities.” 

Moreover, in response to student feedback about the need for structural and timing flexibility, Bennington is now considering not only the winter term, but the full year, as rich learning ground for field experience. “We’re piloting this year a program of select full-year work opportunities to count for FWT,” McClellan said. She added that the College is allowing students to petition to pursue specialized opportunities in the summer, such as Research Opportunities for Undergraduates or prestigious, fully-paid summer internships or fellowships.

But flexibility and funding are only part of the story. There is a fundamental issue of elite access to networks, simply put who you know. “Money is one part, and making block grants automatically available to high need students helps,” Warnock explained, “but the other part is really teaching students how to build networks and how to present themselves to employers. There are also disparities in terms of social capital and cultural capital that the College is now seeking to address through curricular and advising supports.”

Part 4
Technology: An Equalizer or a Divider? 

Enter Handshake, the rising star of the college job search market, migrating more than 700 colleges and universities to its platform since its founding in 2014.

A job-search, networking, and career education tool with a mission of “democratizing opportunity” by connecting students to a network of more than 350,000 employers, Handshake is Bennington’s home base for students who want to apply for on-and off-campus jobs, internships, or post-graduate opportunities. It is also the first step for many students in learning how to use online tools to catch employers’ eyes.

“If you don’t understand that digital presentation of self, you’re at a disadvantage,” said Ransick. Just as many jobs are going the way of AI, artificial intelligence is also being used to hire employees. On the surface, this is a huge opportunity for students who lack the social and cultural capital to which Warnock referred. While earlier hiring processes might have focused on pedigree—pulling job interviewees exclusively out of particular feeder schools, for example—AI is now being used by businesses to flag résumés in systems such as Handshake or LinkedIn that have the right keywords and skills.

“Being able to learn how to navigate digital presentation of self can help to somewhat even the playing field,” Warnock went on. “Students who know how to use the right keywords, how to present themselves with their résumé or profile online—if we can teach students those skills, that can help.” But this is also a challenge for Bennington in particular, because the College doesn’t have traditional majors. If a student elects to omit an academic major in their profile, “the system may not understand the depth or the nuance or skill set,” Ransick said. It is all the more important, then, that Bennington students learn how to present themselves digitally. To meet this need, the Deans Office and Field Work Term staff are partnering to interweave training about digital presentation into required curricula for first-year students, helping to level the playing field of opportunity.

But will digital hiring processes really eliminate the problem presented by elite networking and pedigree? “That, to me, is in some ways the biggest question mark,” Ransick answered. “It has the opportunity to level because we’re not just looking at pedigree, but it also has an inadvertent side-effect to not engage students who might be great candidates because it’s a machine evaluating, and it’s based on data that may be biased and nomenclature mismatches on language. You could find yourself in a challenging position even though you’re qualified.”

By Bennington’s metrics, Field Work Term helps students to succeed and thrive. While employers are nationally expressing pessimism about college students, there is no such disappointment around Field Work Term. Some 97 percent of employers to date have expressed satisfaction with their two to four returning students (third-term Bennington interns), and 94 percent said they’d hire them again. On the student side, in the 2017 one-year-out survey, recent alumni shared the immediate impacts of Field Work Term: 88 percent were employed full time and 8 percent enrolled in graduate school, while 3 percent were giving back via service-fellowship programs. Notably, 85 percent of these recent alumni who were working held a job directly related to their field of study. Also of note, 72 percent of respondents said that Field Work Term was “important” or “very important” to their learning in college. 


Field Work Term Fellowships

Selected students complete an unpaid FWT position or Independent Study focused on public action, either domestically or internationally, each supported by a grant. This opportunity is available to 5 to 10 returning students (third-term through seventh-term), selected based on need and merit factors, and grants typically range from $1,000– $2,000.

The Entrepreneurial Option is available to students interested in learning how to start and run their own business or nonprofit, and/or launch themselves as an independent artist or freelancer. Selected students with demonstrated need who wish to apply to the Entrepreneurial Option may also apply to the Entrepreneurial Fellowship. Through this fellowship—made possible by Adnan Iftekhar ’97—students will receive funding and mentorship to spend their FWT pursuing an unpaid entrepreneurial project. This opportunity is available to two to four returning students (third-term through seventh-term), selected based on need and merit factors, and grants typically range from $1,000–$2,000. To qualify, students must have successfully completed at least one FWT, be in good academic standing, and have secured a business mentor/supervisor.

Through the Field Work Term Arts and Technology Fellowship, selected students complete an unpaid FWT position or Independent Study that focuses on work at the intersection of technology and visual and/or performing arts, each supported by a grant. Work may take place anywhere across the globe. Funded by an anonymous foundation gift, this opportunity is available to up to three returning students (third-term through seventh-term), selected based on need and merit factors, and awards will be made up to $2,500.