It’s time to declare missions, not majors

Nearly 30 years ago when I was interviewing for my first PR job, the senior partner at J.D. Power and Associates asked me what the most important thing was that I learned in school. Without much hesitation I responded — “I learned how to learn.” He smiled and I was offered the job later that week.

To this day, I continue to believe that learning how to learn was by far the most valuable thing I took away from my four years at Syracuse University.  That’s not to say that learning how to craft a story-sparking press release, design an attention-grabbing press kit or produce a perfectly polished VNR weren’t important foundational skills but the reality is most of what we learn in college is outdated within the first 10 years of our careers.

Jobs like Social Media Manager, AI Engagement Specialist, VR Experience Director and Data Mining Scientist were not even on our radar a decade ago and will likely be as irrelevant as the press kit and VNR ten years from now. So it’s not surprising that a 2013 study by the Federal Reserve Bank found that only 27% of college graduates end up in jobs related to what they majored in.

The reality is that the problems facing our world — healthcare access, climate change, poverty, urbanization and racial conflict— are simply much bigger, more complex and more dynamic than the concept of conventional university majors were intended to address. In our purpose-driven world and profession, the time has come for universities to consider a new breed of degree — one that encourages students to declare a “mission” or “purpose” and collaborate with faculty to chart an individualized interdisciplinary journey of courses, projects, immersions and experiences.

Earlier this year, I discovered a university that is doing just that. It can be found in one of the most unexpected places in the world — the remote Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, where I’m currently serving as an executive in residence after climbing the corporate ladder for the past three decades at Fortune 500 brands including Starbucks, United Airlines and US Airways.

African Leadership University (ALU), which graduated its inaugural class of students last June, has created a new blueprint for 21st century education. Our leadership-focused curriculum is centered around preparing a new generation of African leaders to solve Africa’s biggest challenges (such as wildlife conservation, unemployment, agribusiness and education). And we’re doing it by having students declare missions not majors — and in doing so unlock their full leadership potential.

The school’s unique entrepreneurial approach to higher education is focused on preparing “life-long learners” equipped to solve the continent’s biggest problems and chase the most innovative solutions. With state-of-the-art campuses in Mauritius and Rwanda, students discover their purpose, identify a “grand social challenge,” and work with faculty to handcraft an individualized learning path to catalyze their self-selected mission.

Longstanding research by the Center for Creative Leadership suggests that only 10% of a leader’s development comes from what they learned in the classroom, 20% comes from their developmental relation- ships with other people, and an over- whelming 70% comes from real-world challenges and experiences. That’s why at ALU our accredited and personalized bachelor’s degree is built around real-world projects, experientials, peer-learning and mentorship — instilling seven essential 21st century meta skills that organizations around the world are seeking in their next generation of leaders.

These skills are intended to augment academic theory and provide students with the lifelong learning and leadership mindset necessary to stay a step ahead in our ever-changing world — and be prepared for the jobs, issues and opportunities of tomorrow that haven’t even been thought of today. These seven meta skills include understanding how to lead others; entrepreneurial thinking; quantitative reasoning; self-awareness; critical thinking; complexity management; and communicating with impact.

Now don’t take my word for the power of this idea (I’m biased sitting here in the middle of the Indian Ocean surrounded by the courageous and visionary students, faculty and staff of this university of the future. Consider that earlier this year, Fast Company honored ALU as one of the 50 most innovative organizations in the world (no other university on the planet made the cut). The New York Times spotlighted ALU as one of 10 places in the world “where history is being made.” ALU’s founder, Fred Swaniker, was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the world last April. And ALU’s innovative “missions not majors” approach is catching the attention of the world’s most admired and influential leaders, including Bill Gates, Jack Ma and President Barack Obama.

Put simply, the purpose-inspired employers of today want more than functionally focused, work-ready graduates — they are seeking the entrepreneurial-minded leaders and problem solvers who possess the wide-angle perspective to win today and innovate for the world of tomorrow.

Nelson Mandela declared, “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that generation.” Communications schools, particularly their public relations programs, are uniquely suited to take the lead in catalyzing a new wave of difference makers — and unleash a new generation of greatness.


To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.

Olsen is Chief Communications Officer and Executive in Residence, African Leadership University. Olson is piloting thought leadership and media positioning strategy for the university’s CEO and founder, as well as supporting fundraising and overseeing social media.