Nov 06, 2017


What Students Need, Companies Want, and We Can Cultivate

Erica Young Reitz writes about how collegiate leaders can cultivated something students need to succeed – a Kingdom-centered and God-fueled curiosity.

Have you ever made elephant toothpaste? Me neither. Until recently. My children and I went on a science experiment binge that had us mixing anything from coffee grounds to hair products. We watched homemade volcanos erupt, film-container rockets launch and warm “toothpaste” bubble from an old beer bottle. With each new creation, wide eyes and wows followed. “Let’s do another one!” my kids kept saying. Their curiosity was contagious, inspiring us to see if we could create another experiment more interesting than the last.

You don’t have to teach curiosity to children. You need only cultivate the innate wonder that’s already there. But how does wonder wane and why? Madeleine L’Engle, borrowing from Thomas Traherne, blames our corrupt world which “dull[s] our imaginations, [and] cut[s] away our creativity.” L’Engle’s solution: unlearn these “dirty devices” and become like a child. Our childlike wonder allows us to ask questions, avoid comparison and stay ever-curious. If we want our students to thrive during college and beyond, we need to help them (re)discover curiosity. Possessing it will not only set them apart from their peers and position them for success in their careers, but most importantly, it will also aid them in building the Kingdom. Our Creator is actively working to restore the whole cosmos, and He invites us to join Him. As L’Engle reminds us, we must become like curious children to enter in.

Curiosity Sets Seniors Apart
In a recent study that looked at a diverse group of students who thrive during their senior year transition, a top quality stands out: curiosity. Researchers Louis and Hulme write, “the most striking and ubiquitous characteristic of the students in this study was their insatiable curiosity.” These students pursued deep learning, pushed themselves out of their comfort zones, and thoughtfully engaged others whose perspective differed from their own. In short, they welcomed uncertainty and lived in inquiry.

These students are the opposite of the box-checking, I-just-need-to-get-to-the-next-thing type of seniors. One of my co-workers shared how most of her seniors are consumed with getting to graduation; they care way more about having their paperwork in order than they do about asking big questions or preparing to thrive beyond college. For these students, it’s all about grabbing for grades and getting to the big day in May. How do we help students unlearn this approach and why does it matter?

Companies Want Curiosity
As students rush to the finish line with their padded resumes, they may want to take a step back and ask if they have their eyes on the right prize. Employers want more than nice transcripts. According to author Jeff Selingo, students will need these seven skills: curiosity, creativity, grit, digital awareness, contextual thinking, and humility. Employers want hires who are curious, know how to ask good questions, and who see learning as a life-long pursuit.

Selingo, like many others, blames school for sucking creativity out of kids; “in school, students are rewarded for having answers, not asking questions.” But students who want to position themselves for a strong start out of college will need to show that they can ask questions. According to Selingo, employers want hires who think beyond the structure of college (study, go to class, take a test, go home, repeat) so they thrive in an unpredictable work environment. They want to know that college has challenged students to think in new ways, not just that it taught them to make the grade. Companies will mine for curiosity (and may ask an interviewee about recent books they’ve read, movies they’ve watched or places they’ve traveled). They want to know if students are hungry to learn. Because (as Louis and Hulme found), drive, passion and insatiable curiosity lead to success.

How We Can Cultivate Curiosity
For many, college has been reduced to a “transcript factory” (as one writer calls it), but we can imagine and offer a different reality. First and foremost, we nourish curiosity when we cast a greater vision for the purpose of higher education. In a recent Barna study on why students go to college, researchers summed up the data in three words: career, career, career. Job preparation has become the end of education. While no one can argue the pragmatic reality of job placement for students, we must offer a deeper, wider answer to the purpose of college. Students need a vision for learning that connects it to their love for God and His creation. And, they need a vision for college that involves the development of character for the common good. Ironically, students who approach college as something other than career preparation will likely be more prepared for the job market when employers come looking.

We also cultivate curiosity when we show our students, “it’s okay to fail.” I remember writing these words on a post-it note after college and sticking it to my computer screen. My identity was so wrapped up in my performance, I didn’t know how to fail or what I would I do if I did. We need to give our students the autonomy to try new things and mess up. And we need to come alongside them when they do – to offer timely feedback…and grace upon grace.

When students know it’s okay to fail, creativity and innovation rise. I’m grateful for years of working with teams and leaders who never thought there was one right answer or single solution. Instead, we brainstormed with students, and nothing was off limits. I remember a time when we asked our students to innovate outreach strategies for reaching first year students during launch week. “Pizza on a rope” came up as an idea. David wanted us to hang pizza from string and have an eating contest in East Halls. While roped pizza never materialized (bullet dodged), the essence of the idea was still spot on. Years later, offering free pizza over lunchtime in the HUB became a top strategy for meeting new students during launch week.

Curiosity is fostered when we care about students ideas as well as what they’re studying. We can help them fall in love with learning and their field of study. At the CCO, we use the term “double-study” to refer to students not only reading the assigned class material but also reading about their subject from a Christian perspective. I mentored a writing major during college who sought out the relationship because she felt her fellowship group never addressed the things she cared about most: writing and art. She wanted to know, “Do these matter in the Kingdom and if so, what does God have to say about them?” With book recommendations on art and writing, Amelia began to “double-study,” deepening her love for her subject and her Creator. If you’re looking to help a student in this way, I know of no better resource than Byron Borger and Hearts & Minds Bookstore.

Learning is Always the Goal
If we have lost our own sense of wonder, we will not be able to cultivate it in our students. One of the best ways to renew curiosity is by spending time with children – your own or someone else’s. My five year old daughter, Hannah, has been a on a Magic School Bus series kick, so it made sense to read The Science Fair Expedition while we were on our experiment binge. The book asked, “What’s the first thing you need to be a scientist?” Hannah’s response, “To want to learn!” The textbook answer was curiosity, but these are one in the same. Curiosity is our drive to learn and know. And learning is always the goal. One of the best things we can do for our students is to ignite their flame for learning,…for their good and the sake of the Kingdom.

about the author

Erica Young Reitz

After 14 years of college ministry experience working for the CCO, Erica is now teaching and consulting. Her passion for equipping graduating seniors to prepare for life after college continues. Erica is available to speak and consult – she loves connecting with students and 20-somethings as well as with practitioners who work with them. Currently, she serves as an adjunct faculty for Geneva College’s Master’s in Higher Education Program. She is the author of After College: Navigating Transitions, Relationship and Faith (InterVarsity Press).