Preparing our first graduates for their next step

Yale-NUS College has just graduated its first students, writes Trisha Craig

July 30, 2017
Graduates sign

Recently, Yale-NUS College achieved a major milestone with the graduation of our first cohort. In addition to the proud families hailing from 18 countries, who watched their children walk across the stage, staff at the college felt other sets of eyes on our newly minted alumni: those of people from our founding institutions and the general public. 

We recognise that we are in part judged by how our students fare in their post-college pursuits and that many people are watching to see whether this “experiment” of the liberal arts in Asia, and the only establishment of its kind in Singapore, will succeed. 

Certainly, there are many different metrics by which to evaluate an institution of higher education. These include whether it is producing well-rounded, creative individuals or engaged citizens, but immediate and practical considerations, of course, also play a role in how colleges and universities are assessed. Postgraduate outcomes, such as obtaining a job or a competitive spot at another institution for further study, matter to parents, to academic leadership teams, to government funders and to students themselves. 

For a new university to achieve good graduate outcomes requires a slightly different playbook to one that an established institution might use. For the inaugural graduating class, there are no past students to act as models on how to look for a job, apply for a fellowship, or juggle schoolwork with graduate school applications. There are no alumni to ask for the inside scoop on companies and no one who can pass on a good word on behalf of a new graduate from their alma mater. 

New institutions also lack a track record with employers and graduate school admissions committees. And in the case of institutions such as Yale-NUS that are offering a liberal arts curriculum in regions of the world where it has little history, local labour markets may be unfamiliar with both the style of education and even the content of specific majors. So while long-standing institutions may think of themselves as readying their students for the job market, new ones have the additional task of preparing the market for their students. 

To overcome our challenges, we used a variety of strategies that we put into effect well before our students were ready to graduate. Students typically pursue one of three paths in the year after commencement. For Yale-NUS students, in order of frequency as of July 2017, those are employment (about 74 per cent); graduate or professional schools (about 20 per cent); and fellowships (about 4 per cent), which is a profile very similar to other leading liberal arts colleges. 

To prepare students for careers after college, we established a robust programme of internships. We focus on skill acquisition so that students gain the kinds of transferable competencies that modern workplaces require: teamwork, intercultural competency, independence, research, report writing, and presentation skills.  

Because many firms in the for-profit sector prefer to hire advanced-level students, we work with numerous non-governmental organisations to place freshmen and sophomores. To help students offer value to their employers and strengthen their skills, we put interns through our signature programme, NGO Bootcamp. In later years, students can take advantage of our self-sourced internship scheme, where they can find and receive funding for an internship that is closely related to the field in which they hope to work. 

Skills development and network-building are important to secure employment after graduation but we have found that outreach to the local labour market is also crucial. This is done in part in a typical fashion: our career services team visits many firms. In addition, we also use a whole college approach. Faculty have been instrumental in explaining the content of our curriculum to potential employers. Heads of the residential colleges (rectors) have invited leaders from many governmental, for-profit and non-profit organisations to get to know our students at rectors’ teas, and students have been encouraged to participate in many externally judged professional competitions with excellent results.

For students pursuing graduate and professional schools, the cumulative effect of opportunities on offer to students has helped them to achieve success in their applications to some of the world’s leading programmes. Particularly for those students who have opted for PhD programmes in fields such as astrophysics, cognitive psychology or philosophy, our student research programme has been critical. This allows undergraduates to undertake summer and term-time research and publish with faculty members at Yale-NUS as well as institutions in North America, Europe and Asia – something that we view as critical for success.

Our study abroad and exchange programme, which more than three-quarters of our intake participate in, has introduced institutions on five continents to Yale-NUS and our students. In that way, despite our recent vintage, faculty and administrators around the world have become more familiar with the quality of our students and our training.

Applying for postgraduate fellowships is another area where students can usually count on the lore passed down from their seniors. In a new institution such as ours, students are less likely to even be aware of this option until relatively late. We urge faculty members to help us identify students with strong academic and leadership potential early on and to encourage students to take the steps to build a strong portfolio. Our Leadership Certificate programme also includes modules that fellowship candidates can benefit from whether or not they pursue the certificate. 

New institutions are often launched to much fanfare. To fulfil their promise, they need to understand that they face specific challenges in addition to the ones that more established schools confront. Early engagement and outreach to labour and academic markets, building on student opportunities in a cumulative way, and employing a whole institution approach, where faculty and staff coordinate, are strategies that we have successfully employed to the benefit of our new graduates. 

Trisha Craig is dean of international and professional experience at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

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