Over and over again, high school students and their parents hear from teachers, counselors, and the media that college is a place to find a career. College is a place to learn skills that will make doing that career possible. College is therefore a means to an end.
Is it true?
In many ways, yes it is.
Take me, for example: I went to college, got a degree, and got a job a month after graduation. My friends from college either went directly into graduation/professional programs or, like me, found work as well.
A plus B equals C, right?
The real answer is, in fact, closer to maybe, because I think what a lot of people – and media outlets – miss as they extol the virtues of career preparation over “education for the sake of education” is that, while hard skills and job training are certainly to be found in college, there’s a bigger picture to consider.
My first job after college was in the marketing department of a credit union. My degree is in English, which wasn’t necessarily a direct path into the marketing world. (The two semesters of Shakespeare I took didn’t come up in my job interview.) What got me the job wasn’t my knowledge of literature (the hard skills I acquired), but instead was the fact that, as a campus tour guide coordinator during my junior and senior years, I was the leader of a group of 60 other tour guides on campus. I organized training meetings and put together work schedules, mitigated conflicts between guides and worked alongside the campus visit coordinator to make sure that each campus visitor received a personalized campus visit experience by pairing the right guide with the right prospective student on tour.
Those were the soft skills I picked up along with my degree – and they were what really mattered in the end.
I thought a lot about the acquisition of soft skills a couple of weeks ago while working on a project with two members of the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association’s (IHSA) board of directors. You see, readers, it’s often in my travels that I meet a student and/or family who are adamant about the student having abundant opportunities to ride in college but won’t consider for a moment riding within the structure of the IHSA.
I hear things like:
If I can’t ride for a real varsity program, I just won’t ride.
I’m not riding the crappy/lame/unsophisticated horses they use in IHSA shows.
I’m too talented for the IHSA.
Those students and families prefer instead to focus their college search attentions on the National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA), the varsity equestrian branch of the NCAA or else continue to ride privately with local trainers. And that’s just fine. College decisions are personal and the important thing is that students wind up educated and happy in the end.
I do, however, want to highlight the one distinct advantage I think students and parents miss when they overlook IHSA programs for those reasons above:
The IHSA is an organization founded upon the mission that all college students should have the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate equestrian competition regardless of financial status. So, while there certainly are wealthy programs and students out there, the majority of participants get into the show ring through the time-honored methods of fundraising, borrowing, bartering, and – most importantly – collaborating with one another. IHSA coaches themselves collaborate regularly to acquire horses, tack, and other necessities to make their programs and teams run.
You want to talk soft skills?
Students who participate on IHSA teams during their college careers – whether those teams function as school clubs or as part of an NCAA Division III athletic department on campus – learn to:
- Make it work. If a freak spring blizzard interrupts a host college’s regional (outdoor!) show, the students first learn not to panic. Instead, they work together as a unit to finish as many rides as they can, make sure that everyone not showing stays warm and under cover, and even locate places for the stranded folks from out of town to stay overnight if the weather dictates it. Calls are made, sacrifices requested of many individuals, and at the end of the day, everyone goes home (eventually) with a great story. How do I know this? It’s a true story, readers.
- Network. You know the famous saying “It’s never what you know, but who you know”? It’s true in the IHSA too. Coaches frequently hear of available jobs both inside and outside the horse industry and are always willing to connect students to them – even if those students don’t attend their own institutions. Companies and other organizations affiliated with the association do the same -in fact, the 2016 IHSA National Championship hosted a career fair to facilitate those exact connections and the reviews were glowing. The number of people working together or appearing in each other’s weddings or simply connected through the IHSA astounds and it’s a vital part of what the organization does.
- Win. Nothing says “I want to succeed” quite as much as willingly (and happily) rising for a 6:00 a.m. team practice – or, conversely, staying up late to put the finishing touches on the morning jump course for a home meet that begins before dawn the next morning. For every IHSA member rider who has a major in an equine-related field and intends to work in the horse industry after graduation, there are countless more who will work in non-equestrian careers and yet willingly maintain the same grueling schedules of training and volunteerism. And once you’ve learned how successful you can be when you put in the work on any project, there’s no stopping you.
- Lose. Equestrians learn from their earliest rides how to fall off and get back on the horse; it’s an integral part of our sport. But in IHSA competition, it’s not just about getting a re-ride if necessary or riding better the next time if you make a mistake in your first trip – heck, it isn’t about you at all. Instead, it’s about finding ways to motivate your team when a meet isn’t going your way and working together to get through the challenges of a long and difficult show day. It’s about the van ride home when everyone drew the worst horse in their section, the judge only saw your mistakes, and you’re three hours from campus when you decide not to let the mood worsen and put on your favorite play list to have a spontaneous singalong.
Now readers, please don’t think I’m suggesting that riders in the NCEA don’t develop these skills – that’s not the point at all. (In fact, multiple studies indicate that students who participate in team sports of any kind develop improved soft skills over those who don’t – studies like this one and this one.) The point I want to drive home is that there is a different and valuable set of those soft skills acquired when a team is also a club and therefore student/community driven and that those skills are often exactly what employers seek. Thus, to overlook those opportunities because they aren’t flashy enough is perhaps to do a disservice to one’s college search.
Keep that in mind as your search for colleges this fall, students and parents. Look for the right degree program, the right campus culture, a riding program that will challenge you, and then ask what sort of collaborative opportunities you’ll have to acquire those very valuable soft skills that will make you stand out in the job market.