An Adviser's Plea: Think Broadly, Take Chances

Career services director Bill Wright-Swadel urges Duke students to think more broadly about the classes they take

Duke Career Center Director Bill Wright-Swadel advises students to take risks when choosing classes

Each fall, Bill Wright-Swadel stands in front of the parents of new Duke freshmen and touts the value of discovery, exploration and the value of a well-rounded, and curious intellect.

The parents smile and soak it all in. 


"They all nod their heads because it sounds right when you hear it," says Wright-Swadel, Duke's career center director. "And then the first question you get is: 'What GPA does my daughter need to get into medical school?' "

That get-right-to-the-point thinking, while well-intentioned, may limit a student's long-term development, warns Wright-Swadel, who has spent nearly four decades in the career services game. Since coming to Duke three years ago from Harvard, Wright-Swadel has joined a campus push to get students to broaden their horizons. Students shouldn't be afraid of taking interesting classes outside their main field of study. Indulging their interests won't derail them, he says, even if they don't get an 'A'.

"Everyone is trying to have the perfect grades and the perfect experiences, which means they take safe, well-oiled pathways," he says. "From my perspective, the ability to learn things that are new and different and not in the comfort zone is really critical."

In selling this philosophy to students and their parents, Wright-Swadel feels occasionally that he's shouting into the wind. It's a nice enough idea, but impractical in an increasingly competitive world, some parents tell him. And the desire some have for a safe career with prestige, wealth and security has increased as the struggling economy has tightened the job market. As a result, many students flock to fields like medicine, law and business with reputations for offering those trappings, Wright-Swadel said. 

The irony: in order to get into Duke and universities like it, students must demonstrate the sort of diverse interests and talents Wright-Swadel hopes they continue displaying in college.

"They learn extraordinarily well; they're doers and leaders," he says. "But they still tend to be drawn to four main fields -  medicine, law, consulting and investment banking."

This desire for students to think more broadly underpins much of what Duke does now, such as its emphasis on knowledge in service to society and its creation of high-profile programs like DukeEngage, which allows students to tackle real-world issues at home and abroad. 

"So many students come in with a pre-determined game plan," says Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs. "So a lot of our new experiences like DukeEngage are intended to be intellectually disruptive, in a productive way."

And students are getting the message. About 400 undergraduates took DukeEngage programs this summer. In recent years, applicants have indicated that DukeEngage is among the top features drawing them to the university. 

Duke's re-designed pass/fail courses allow students to "uncover grades," which prompts intellectual stimulation. Students now can take some courses on a satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis, with the option of receiving an actual letter grade at the end of the course if the student has done well.

 "Too many students are just playing it safe," says Lee Baker, dean of academic affairs for Duke's Trinity College of Arts & Sciences. "The idea was to let them explore in a low-risk environment." 

In talking to parent groups, Wright-Swadel often breaks out this gem: "How many students," he asks, "will be in the bottom half of the class?"

His query is usually met with silence. The answer, of course, is half, and Wright-Swadel quickly points out that even those students tend to do just fine. In fact, many of them, fueled by the challenge, often end up achieving far more than their classmates who had better grades, he says.

Duke already requires students to take courses from across the liberal arts spectrum, and Wright-Swadel simply wants them to do so without reticence. It will pay off, he insists.  A computer scientist, for example, may have the technical wizardry to get a high-paying job right out of college, but those extra courses in history and ethics may prove particularly valuable if he ends up in management.

Wright-Swadel's office now emphasizes this to freshmen, urging them to get the most out of college by exploring and reflecting. He suggests students assemble a personal board of directors -- a group of people who can offer honest feedback from differing points of view. Your math professor sees you differently than your residence hall director does, and your lab instructor has a different point of view than your boss at your part-time job.

"All of these perspectives are valuable, and students need to know how to put that all together," Wright-Swadel says.

 Wright-Swadel doesn't feel like he's asking a lot if he suggests to a student studying economics to take time for an extra art history class, or for an art history student to try out economics. He asks this because all knowledge is good; it all matters and the payoff is a firmer foundation upon which to take on the world.

 Don't fear it, he preaches. Don't fear that dastardly "B" in an unfamiliar course in music appreciation or computer programming. It's not a one-way ticket to skid row, and the well-timed reference to Vivaldi or HTML coding may just impress the right person some day. 

And, maybe, that person will help you get into medical school.