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Alumnus Shares Passion for Purpose

By Peter Symzack

One of the leading consultants on academic student success and professional development, Phil Gardner ’69 believes purpose is the key to pursuing one’s passion throughout life.

“Many students who seek a liberal arts degree are driven by their passion for a field of study,” Gardner said. “But, when it comes to linking college and career, there is a big difference between having passion and having purpose. While students often pick a major because they are really excited about it, they don’t always understand how it could connect to a future career. Having purpose is important because it helps students identify how their passions could provide direction for their future career and/or life goals. Purpose is passion with a plan.”

Phil Gardner and Kathleen Murray

In developmental psychology, purpose is often defined as a far-reaching goal that is both personally meaningful and socially beneficial. A person’s purpose encompasses their passions, but directs those passions toward achieving goals that will make a positive difference in the world.

“Said more simply, we can think about purpose as a person’s passion with a goal,” Gardner said.

Whitman College is recognizing Gardner’s dedication to helping students transform their passion into purpose with the 2019 Gordon Scribner Award for Distinguished Service. The award will be presented to Gardner during the Class of 1969’s 50th Reunion luncheon on May 17, 2019. The award, which was created to honor Gordon Scribner ’42, former dean of students and director of alumni, is given to an individual who has made a major contribution of volunteer time and effort to Whitman College over an extended period of time and possesses the ability to inspire.

Finding Life’s Purpose

Gardner certainly fits that description. As director of the Career Services Network and Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, Gardner has been recognized over the past 35 years as a national expert on important issues for college graduates. His forte is helping academic institutions better prepare graduates for success in today’s workforce. Gardner has shared his expertise with Whitman by leading workshops, hosting Google hangouts and consulting on the college’s strategic planning process.

“It’s hard to overstate Phil’s influence on Whitman and so many other higher education institutions. The work that he has done as director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute has had a huge impact nationally on how colleges and universities fundamentally think about preparing students for life after graduation,” Whitman Provost and Dean of Faculty Alzada J. Tipton said. “His guidance was particularly helpful to the work of the Life After Whitman strategic planning group. He really pushed us to keep thinking about the whole person and the trajectory of their whole career.”

Liberal arts colleges like Whitman prepare students for a wide variety of careers — a big advantage in today’s tumultuous jobs economy, according to Gardner. Empowered with a defined purpose, graduates can achieve things that are not only meaningful to themselves in whatever line of work they pursue, but also make a difference in the world at-large.

“For instance, a liberal arts graduate can go into business or finance. They can look at new ways to provide credit to low-income families or to reduce student loans. There’s a way they can apply their liberal arts learning that doesn’t just make money — they have a broader purpose,” Gardner said.

To find purpose, Gardner recommends that students go beyond just attending classes, and even beyond engaging in campus activities they are passionate about. He stresses the importance of mentoring and study-abroad experiences as vital to making students aware of the professional and personal opportunities — and pitfalls — that lie ahead.

“We’ve got to find creative ways to get students engaged off campus,” Gardner said. “Making sure that they get professional experience in the workplace is important. They need internships. Community engagement is great, and it’s rewarding. Study abroad is a foundation piece. Research with the faculty is another foundation piece.”

These experiences provide real-life perspective on how and why things are done, and to what end. They propel students forward, toward finding their purpose.

“When you look at professional development, it comes back to the same three things: purpose, confidence and awareness,” Gardner said. “The greater students are aware of the resources, the greater they can shape how they approach school. The same applies on the career side. Once you have confidence, then you begin to have an overriding purpose.”

The Value of Liberal Arts

Gardner majored in chemistry at Whitman, then earned his master’s in environmental chemistry at Michigan State. After serving in the U.S. Army, he returned to Michigan State and earned his doctorate in public policy.

Following stints with Thailand’s Ministry of Agriculture’s Land Reform Office and a faculty position at the University of California, Riverside, Gardner returned to Michigan State to lead the research efforts for the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, where he has worked for the past three decades.

“Building on my experience at Whitman, I have been able to do cross-disciplinary work with multiple teams of researchers,” Gardner said. “Is it chemistry? No, but I use it, although I probably use Whitman more every day.”

As Gardner’s own multifaceted career shows, an academic major is less important than some might think. Just as his liberal arts education prepared him for change 50 years ago, today’s liberal arts students are preparing for a future where job requirements are morphing and mutating in increasingly unpredictable ways.

“You have to reinvent yourself continually. If you don’t adjust, there’s somebody else who’s going to come in and replace you, because you’re not learning,” he said. “Many alumni, particularly those who are still under the age of 50, are going to see it on a more regular basis. It’s often going to be harder for those in the senior part of their career, but it’s a boon for alumni who can flex their retirement and really reinvent themselves.”

A liberal arts education is a long-term investment, Gardner said. One that he feels remains well worth it.

“Whitman should give you the courage to try things and not worry about failing. You shouldn’t worry about whether you’re going to make a lot of money initially, but you’ve got to go out there and try,” he said. “If something doesn’t work, have the confidence to go on and put it together in a different way.”

Published on May 12, 2019
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