Dr. Andy Sobel, an acclaimed political scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, has a full plate. As a professor and program director of the master’s program in international affairs, the combination of commitments helps him understand the perspective of his University College students, who are also often juggling the pressures of working full time, academic course work and family life. “I’ve been director of the night program for five years now, and have trained masters students over the past 10 years,” he says, proudly.
We sat down with Dr. Sobel for an honest look at the student experience at University College, and how having a degree from the world-class Washington University in St. Louis aids career development.
What kind of professional development opportunities come with having a diploma from WashU?
It really opens doors for them. Many of our students are on a degree path, which gives them a bump up on the career ladder, or faster promotion. And there’s certainly more weight with our name. People in Washington D.C. know us. We’ve been placing students there for years. We’ve had master’s degree students who wanted to go work in Washington or for an international development organization, and their resumés stand out among the rest.
There are big networks of extended Washington University students and alums, and our Career Center is really tapped into those. That extra edge is really important.
We live in a very tough, competitive world. We’ve also begun to see more students come from other countries—Korea and China, for example—to attend the University College master’s program. They’re often given a year or two off from their government jobs there, and their companies pay for them to come to school here.
The WashU degree is truly noticeable. It absolutely stands out more than other schools. And given the cost per credit hour of the degree, it’s an incredible advantage to move your resumé to the top of the pile.
What is a general profile of the students you teach at University College?
Some are looking for a change in career, but many already have a career path and are looking for lifelong ongoing learning that will stimulate them. I have engineers from Boeing, advertisers from Budweiser, urban designers, data scientists from NGA (National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency). It’s less that these folks are trying to pick a new career in international affairs, for example, though some are. But they really are the epitome of what we think education should be about: to enrich your life, meet other people and have a fuller understanding of the world.
Much of the learning happens peer to peer. We set the agenda with the readings, but for students, much of the heavy lifting comes from their peers. Many of them are also paying out of their own pocket. It’s not their parents, like oftentimes it is for the day students, or their corporations. They’re also often at a point where they’ve become intellectually more comfortable in their own skin. They know who they are, which makes those discussions really vibrant and rich. There’s something about students who are a little bit older, with a lifelong interest in expanding their horizons that’s really rewarding.
How does that confidence and bootstrapped education impact the student experience at University College?
Since the students who come to University College are generally older and more mature than typical undergrads, they’re very intellectually aggressive and want to get their money’s worth. They’re not tentative. They’re really full speed ahead. It’s great for me as a faculty member. Younger students tend to be a little more risk-averse, and it takes them longer to get the confidence to engage with their peers. There’s a little more ice-breaking that goes on.
For the night program—and you’d likely be better off asking them about this—they get really good attention from us as faculty, and they’re appreciative of that. I don’t know where many of them did their undergraduate work, but I doubt they’ve had this level of engagement before. Their ideas are uniformly treated with respect by their peers, and faculty are very careful about that, too. That way their confidence builds, but what really changes is their knowledge. These classes cover a lot of territory. In my classes, they’re tackling seminal readings by top scholars, as well as primary texts and research.
Students also come from such a wide array of backgrounds and jobs, and with different motivations. Some want to engage in the intellectual give and take. Some are trying to develop a skillset. They’re adding another layer of complexity to their understanding of the world and to their character. They’re extraordinarily interesting people. We talk a lot about policy issues from an international perspective in my class, and the difference between good policy and good politics. For people, that revelation—and realizing that the political world makes a lot of policy-making more difficult—you see how you’d rather live in a complicated political world that’s a democracy than one that’s not. It’s interesting to watch how they come to grips with that.
What is the community feel of the University College program, and how are students impacted by the vast network of students, professors, and alums?
The master’s program really has one of the stronger communities I’ve seen, because the students organize it. At the end of the year, we have a barbecue hosted by an instructor at his or her home, which students, faculty and their families attend. At gatherings like that, you can really see the kind of community building that goes on.
We also have faculty members from universities around the country come to give lectures for the day program that University College students can attend. That really helps break down barriers of learning solely in the classroom. Night- and day-program students have the opportunity to meet each other, and that dynamic is interesting to watch. The benefit goes both ways. The young folks figure out they really have something to learn from them, with their life experiences and roles at major corporations.
Note: this post was originally published with Alive Magazine.