This is the Liberal Arts in Practice
Beloit alumni who fondly recall the field term as one of the innovative programs that set the college apart during the 1960s and ’70s will likely take comfort in knowing that something similar is once again central to a Beloit education.
In 2011, a revamp of the Beloit curriculum placed renewed emphasis on experiential education and, among other things, included a requirement called the “liberal arts in practice.” That language is now so closely identified with Beloit that an Internet search for the phrase “liberal arts in practice” turns up Beloit College as the first listing.
Students can fulfill the requirement in several ways, and the college has set up a Liberal Arts in Practice Center, which serves as a clearing house for programs and work opportunities that enable students to discover practical applications for their liberal arts education.
An online internship program developed by Associate Professor of Political Science Pablo Toral is a prime example of how the liberal arts in practice mindset takes learning beyond the traditional classroom. The Mouat Junior Professor of International Studies has developed an informal partnership with the government of Belize, the small Central American country that, until 1973, was known as British Honduras.
Toral set up the program through Melanie Gideon, a former student of his at Florida International University, where he taught before coming to Beloit in 2003. Gideon is the deputy executive director for the Belize Trade and Investment Development Service known as BELTRAIDE, a public-private economic development agency that works to bring investments to Belize and helps Belizean firms strengthen their export capabilities.
Last spring, eight students from two of Toral’s classes—Global Political Economy and International Relations of Latin America and the Caribbean—worked on a group project for BELTRAIDE that focused on developing and promoting the country’s exports. Last fall, students in Toral’s Global Political Ecology course worked on two different assignments—one related to sustainable tourism, and the other focused on energy efficiency.
A growing number of students interested in the BELTRAIDE internship signed on for the spring semester of 2015—a dozen in Toral’s Politics of Latin America and the Caribbean course and another 13 in his class focused on the European Union.
While the details of the current internship were still taking shape at press time, the latest Beloit-BELTRAIDE project was expected to involve research on identifying niche markets in the European Union for Belizean agribusiness products.
The format of the internships involves a representative of BELTRAIDE who gives the students an assignment as if they were working at the agency’s headquarters in Belmopan, the nation’s capital.
“The students get the assignment early in the semester and are responsible for completing it before the end,” Toral says. “They negotiate a contract with BELTRAIDE that spells out the goals and deadlines. They meet with BELTRAIDE staff on a regular basis through Skype and email, and they deliver a final presentation via Skype by the end of the semester.”
Toral says these internships help students sharpen professional skills they would not develop through regular college assignments. “It provides them with the experience of engaging in a professional relationship with a ‘client,’ delivering presentations, and observing a dress code,” he says. Dressing in appropriate business attire “is one of the hardest skills for our students to master,” he jokes.
Kidding aside, Toral thinks students work harder on the internship projects than they typically do on regular assignments, and they work in teams, which allows them to learn from one another. “The quality of the work they do in these internships exceeds the quality of individual assignments,” he says. “Even students who struggle with individual assignments rise to the occasion and deliver first-rate work.”
Hero Balani, an investment associate for BELTRAIDE, serves as the coordinator of the internships and works with Toral to develop the projects. He says the research students are engaged in is real work that BELTRAIDE needs to get done.
“If they weren’t doing it, we would have to do it,” he says. “We are a staff of 33, managing an economic development agency for an entire country. The internships save us time and human resources.”
Balani says it’s been a pleasure working with Beloit students. “I see their drive and their desire,” he says. “My goal is for this to be something that can propel them forward, so that a student can say, ‘When I leave college, I have something tangible on my résumé.’”
Shahera McKoy, manager of BELTRAIDE’s export division, describes her experiences with Beloit as “rewarding.” Her colleague Brian Lin, who heads up BELTRAIDE’s investment division, concurs. “The Beloit students were well engaged with our technical team on a very challenging research project from the start of the project to the very end. They deserve congratulations for broadening their horizons and becoming ambassadors of Belize.”
Arthur Staub’14, a business economics and Spanish major, participated in the first internship on exports in spring 2014, his final semester at Beloit. Staub served as the leader of a group that produced a 70-page consulting report that focused on transportation, irrigation, sugar, and papaya.
“I think the fact that we were doing work that needed to get done motivated us to work harder,” Staub says. “We were actually dealing with a real-world problem, doing real-world work, which led, in my case, to a real-world opportunity.” (After graduation, Staub did a three-month on-site internship at BELTRAIDE. See page 36.)
Hannah Devereaux’17, the only first-year student working on that first project, says she knew by reputation that “a Pablo course” would be challenging. “But I didn’t expect to be spending first thing Saturday and Sunday mornings in the library researching a consulting report.” A long-distance swimmer, Devereaux says, “I usually like to do stuff on my own, so I was surprised at how much I enjoyed working in a group and how well we worked together.”
For Sabina Van Tilburg’15, working on the sustainable tourism project for BELTRAIDE last fall marked the completion of her undergraduate degree in environmental studies last December.
“The most valuable part of the internship for me was the experience of working with the staff at BELTRAIDE and learning how to conduct myself professionally,” says Van Tilburg. “This project showed all of us how important time management is when trying to balance school, work, sports, and the internship.” Van Tilburg, who traveled in Africa this winter before planning to return to campus for Commencement activities in May, says, “The people in our group felt lucky to have this opportunity where our voices were heard and where our research and recommendations could make a difference for Belizean enterprises.”
Toral says the partnership with BELTRAIDE is a wonderful learning opportunity for students.
“They take the assignment as a real job, work really hard through the semester, and learn a huge amount about the subject of the project,” he says. “The students sharpen their research, writing, and public-speaking skills. Being accountable to an outside party reinforces the importance of these skills in a work environment. During class discussions, we relate what we learn in the course through assigned readings to what they learn through the internship.”
Toral points out that BELTRAIDE internships are not the only opportunities for students in his classes to put the liberal arts into practice. Others include the Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness in Minneapolis, the Kallari cooperative in the Ecuadorean Amazon, and local organizations, such as the Welty Environmental Center.
“This transfer of knowledge from the classroom to the work environment and back, and the ensuing reflection, is a signature of Beloit’s curriculum,” he says. “This is what we call the liberal arts in practice.”
One Step Beyond
When Arthur Staub’14 applied for admission to Beloit in 2009, the concept of putting the liberal arts into practice was not yet an official “mantra” of the college, he says. But it sounds like he already had a grasp of it.
“To me the liberal arts meant a small college with a create-your-own-adventure sort of education, where you try to design your own path and find out where you fit in,” he says.
Staub found out that he fit in well at the small college not far from his hometown of Milwaukee. “There’s a breadth and depth of education,” he says. “The experience that you get from all sorts of interactions enables you to do whatever you want in your life. You take the tools that are given to you and build your own opportunity.”
During his final semester at Beloit in spring 2014, Staub worked on the first project that associate professor Pablo Toral set up with BELTRAIDE, the economic development agency in Belize. After graduating last May, he took things one step further—he arranged for a three-month internship working at BELTRAIDE’s offices in Belize. To cover his living expenses for the unpaid position, Staub applied for and received a $5,000 grant from the Weissberg Foundation through a fellowship that is part of Beloit’s Weissberg Program in Human Rights.
In order to qualify for the fellowship, Staub says, he had to make the case that working at an economic development agency would advance the cause of human rights. “The right to education, health care, socioeconomic rights—those things are established through economic development,” he says.
While doing the actual onsite internship, Staub discovered the limits of working from a distance, even with the breakthroughs that have been achieved in communications technology. While working from Beloit, he says, “It was hard to get the info we needed. Much of it was not available online. In Belize, I had all the resources that I needed. I had to do a lot of field work while researching the country’s financial infrastructure. I had to meet with exporters, financial institutions, upper-level management. That’s not possible from a desk in the United States.”
As the first on-site intern at BELTRAIDE, Staub says, “My preparation was limited to what I could find on the Internet. I needed support from my coworkers at BELTRAIDE to make a transition to that life. They really were helpful when it came to the social aspect of things and they were enthusiastic about showing me around. I was extremely appreciative of their support.
“I felt like Beloit really prepared me for an experience that was outside my comfort zone,” he says. “I don’t think a student at a large university would have been as prepared as I was. Maybe in the academic aspect, but the social aspect was hugely important. I really had to draw on the experience I had at Beloit—living in Ecuador, learning how to navigate culture and language barriers.”
Staub says he took satisfaction in knowing that the work he was doing was needed to lay the groundwork for one of BELTRAIDE’s major initiatives. “It was all going for a trade finance initiative that they are developing. I was taking the first steps for them,” he says.
Those steps included producing a guide to trade finance that will serve as a resource for companies in Belize to use in seeking financing to develop and export their products to the global marketplace.
“Arthur was viewed as a welcome addition to the team and provided an invaluable service,” says Shahera McKoy, the manager of BELTRAIDE’s export division. “His work led to insights about Belize’s trade finance landscape and provided information that will benefit us and our clients.”
Paul Engleman’76 is an award-winning author based in Chicago. He is supporting the Stephen Moncada Street’77 Endowed Scholarship by donating his honorarium for this story back to Beloit College.