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Considering a US liberal arts style education – learn about some students’ experiences

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If you know anything about college applications, you’ve probably heard the words “Liberal Arts College” floating around. If you haven’t heard the term, then I’m sure you’ve heard of some of the colleges and universities (Don’t believe me? Rankings are NOT everything, but here’s a solid list of Liberal Arts Schools from Times Higher Education). So, what is a Liberal Arts College (LAC)? While there are many definitions, some key characteristics of Liberal Arts Colleges are a focus on broad general education over vocational skills, smaller class sizes, emphasis on undergraduate education over research, and a vibrant campus life. There is an importance placed on the whole student; Liberal Arts Colleges want to produce well-rounded adults who have a variety of skills. Liberal Arts graduates are employable because they are generally creative, critical-thinkers, with strong communication skills. Every company, no matter how technical, needs employees with soft skills who can think outside of the box. In fact, surprisingly, if you do a quick google search of LAC graduate employability, you’ll see a plethora of articles about why STEM and Tech companies are turning to liberal arts grads. Go ahead, see for yourself!

So, given all of this information, what about Africa? As a counsellor in Kenya, many of my students and their parents have initially been reluctant to apply to Liberal Arts Colleges; there is a culture that pushes the typical careers…engineer, accountant, doctor. The world is so much bigger than those three options. Kenyan business professor Bitange Ndemo called the liberal arts education “Africa’s antidote against exploitation”. Here is a link to his article. In the end, after learning about the tremendous financial aid packages available at liberal arts colleges around the world, nearly 100% of our HALI students apply to Liberal Arts Colleges. So, enough from me, let’s hear from the HALI students about their experiences at LACs:

“Being in a liberal arts school allows me to learn different skills required to effect social change in my community. Because I am entirely focused on one course, I’m able to exercise my interests in different things and learn how a problem can be solved using different methods. For example, an environmental problem can be interpreted from economics, philosophical and biological perspectives.” – Josephine Odhiambo Awino (Mastercard scholar, Wellesley College, USA)

“One peculiar thing about liberal arts school is their emphasis on skills learning. For example, an art history major can apply to a job such as investment banking and could still be recruited as the bank knows you have an array of skills to help you adapt to the job. The idea is to explore and study an array of topics. You get to identify new interests that you never even thought you had in you, thanks to general education expectations. Academic rigor, double major is the standard here, hence this pushes you beyond the ordinary. Academic attention is so great such as building personal relationships with professors. They help you really personalize your education as there is no sole approach to learning in liberal arts colleges.  Strong alumni networks mean you are always ready to give back to your school and gain assistance in landing internships. I am glad I choose this path as am I confident I will come out with a unique skill set. It goes beyond the content and concepts in textbooks. This will help me navigate and adapt to new environments whether graduate school or in a job”- Sydney Ochieng (Wesleyan University, USA)

“There was a lot of pressure to have figured out what I want to do. I wanted a liberal arts education as it promised an opportunity to explore multiple interests before settling on one. It actually helped me realize a career in scientific research is not what I wanted, and I would have been miserable had I pursued that to the end. Right now, I work in international development consulting and I feel fulfilled. I don’t think I would have found myself here if I hadn’t pursued a liberal arts education” -– African Leadership Academy Alumni (studying at a Liberal Arts College)

“Just recently, I discovered the beauty of being open-minded. Having been surrounded by over 150 people, all across the African continent, the YYAS programme showed me just how much fulfilment there is in learning about different cultures. Although I am a bit skeptical about the weather in Massachusetts, I am very excited about learning the different beliefs and doctrines that exist within the Smith community; I am eager to quench the thirst of my open mind. I would like to think of myself as an academic explorer and one of the reasons I picked Smith College is because its open curriculum will allow me to do all the exploring I need. That being said, I have recently developed an interest in a study that aims at answering questions when science and religion fall short – Philosophy! For that reason, I will probably take a philosophy class at Smith, and who knows? It might become my major.” – Thando Lungu (going to Smith College, USA)

“For me the concept of a liberal arts education was rather fuzzy at the beginning but having experienced it at Colgate, I believe it was one of my most transformative educational experiences. The sheer range of disciplines I was able to take courses in and the freedom that it came with was amazing. From reading the classics, poetry and African literature, to programming, to studying Economics, to conducting Psychological experiments, to study abroad opportunities on three different continents – it offered me remarkable breadth and depth of skills and experiences, especially at a time in my life when I wasn’t very sure what fields I wanted to pursue. It freed me to experiment (and sometimes fail) and that has served me very well in the workplace over the last three years when I worked in the financial and education sectors in Kenya.” – African Leadership Academy Alumni (studying at a Liberal Arts College)

“Growing up in East Africa, I have always felt an inclination towards STEM subjects, which had a great impact on my career aspirations. However, I have also had interests in various disciplines and found that sticking to STEM was very limiting. Studying at Amherst College, a liberal arts university, has made me realize the extent to which I enjoy receiving a balanced education. I have been able to make connections between different disciplines, both STEM and humanities, which has helped me construct my long-term goals and that I believe will contribute positively towards my career path. The liberal arts programme has relieved the pressure off me to make a definite decision about which career I will ultimately pursue. It has given me time to explore my interests and passions before make an informed and final decision.” – Arzoo Rajpar (Amherst College, USA)

“Being a freshman can be very frustrating especially when your parents have expectations of you that are not in line with your academic field of interest. It’s even worse when you don’t have a concrete idea of where your interests lie. Liberal Arts is the way to go when you find yourself in this predicament. I’m a freshman at Washington and Lee University and I’m confident Liberal Arts was the right path for me. I came to university with a vague idea of majoring in Physics and Engineering but I didn’t want to be restricted to this field of study because there are many more fields that I wanted to explore first. In my first semester, I took a Poverty class and was astounded by the intricacies associated with poverty and I’m now considering a Poverty minor. Had I gone to an engineering school, I wouldn’t have had a similar opportunity. Moreover, I’m not sure which type of engineering I like best but being in a Liberal Arts environment, I don’t have to worry about that because I’m going to receive a holistic education on physics. This implies my skills will be easily malleable to any field of engineering I choose. Anyway, I have a few months to go before declaring a major and who knows, I may declare a non-physics related major because there’s time to discover more interests.” – William Baya (Washington & Lee University, USA)

“The opportunity to explore difference academic disciplines is really what makes liberal arts a great education. There was no pressure to declare a major for the first two years which granted me the freedom to take a diverse range of courses to find out what works for me and where my passion really lies. The benefit of this was that I eventually chose a major I felt strongly about, with the added bonus of having a keen understanding of other disciplines – which shaped the way I analyze issues – I can position myself differently and adopt multiple perspectives. There is also the opportunity to design our own major that some students opt for, which is great for folks whose interests do not align with any of the course offerings.” – African Leadership Academy Alumni (studying at a Liberal Arts College)

Samantha Caras

University Counsellor

Aga Khan Academy, Mombasa


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