Ten years ago, Gallup reported a provoking finding: Americans who are emotionally disconnected from their jobs rate their lives more poorly than Americans not working at all. Work produces income. But at a more fundamental level, work done with purpose and passion produces feelings of worth.
This isn’t news to Sarah Wolek and Rajshree Agarwal at the University of Maryland. They are the driving forces behind the school’s Intentional Life Lab. The Lab’s work is guided by the premise that the world will be a better place if each individual follows a path determined by their own interests and aptitudes. It also fosters a holistic thinking about the self by using a six-pillar framework of purpose, wellness, relationships, community, prosperity, and nature.
The Lab’s mission is rooted in Wolek’s own work experience. Armed with an MBA and a master’s degree in public policy, Wolek spent years working in the private and public sectors trying to refine budgets, processes, and policies to get organizations to better deliver on their goals. Her changes helped — to an extent.
“Then I realized that it’s people who do the work,” Wolek says. “If people aren’t bought into the mission of the organization, or their individual strengths aren’t being utilized, it’s hard to create meaningful results. When people are good at and purposefully connected to what they do — that’s when the magic happens!”
Wolek approached the University of Maryland, her undergraduate alma mater, to pitch a one-credit course that would help students better choose a career. That course launched in 2017. As Wolek considered next steps, a colleague suggested she connect with Agarwal, who directs the university’s Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets.
The match was well-timed.
“From the inception of the Snider Center, we have focused on how to create a purposeful life,” says Agarwal. “Liberty is freedom of action, but that begs the question: freedom to do what? Why these actions? We define purpose as ‘making the world a better place by doing something important to you.’ Both parts matter. Of course you want to make your world a better place, but if you’re not focused on problems you personally find meaningful, you won’t achieve a win-win solution.”
The Snider Center launched the Lab in February 2020. In the 2020-21 academic year, it offered three courses. The foundation of the Lab’s work is “Intentional Self,” a course that asks students to examine who they have been, who they are now, and who they want to become. Students engage with these questions to create a personal plan of action.
The second course is “Choosing Your Major and Career.” Here, the course asks students to explore their abilities and aspirations, and examine how their choice of major and career aligns with these to create self-esteem and provide value to others.
Jacqueline Maloney took the course as a freshman in the fall. Through a series of writing assignments and one-on-one meetings, Maloney discovered her love of fashion and art. With Wolek’s encouragement, Maloney identified a new university major, marketing and immersive media design, and took her first course in the major in the spring.
The class writing assignments helped Maloney explore how her creative impulses could overlap with strategic and leadership roles. “This course exposed me to options I couldn’t have imagined,” says Maloney.
The third course, “Careers in Impact,” introduces students to private, public, and nonprofit sector jobs that seek to make a positive impact on society. As part of the course, students interview professionals about their own career decisions. Douglas Bell enrolled in the class after a friend recommended it.
A junior, Bell had begun to contemplate life after graduation. He thought he’d take the path many friends planned: graduate school. But after interviewing a financial adviser who is creating impact by enabling his clients to achieve their life goals, Bell is rethinking his plan. “This class was not like anything I’d taken before,” Bell says. “It taught me real skills I know will help me decide what to do after graduation.”
Wolek and Agarwal are developing a fourth class, “The Intentional Leader,” for 2021-22. That course will ask students how they can start with their own values and connect with others to build productive enterprises that achieve a shared purpose.
Each Lab class is open to students in any major and students can take all four if they choose. Embedded within each course is the understanding that people can evolve in both work and life by being intentional about their reasons and actions.
“Our goal is to facilitate a student’s self-discovery, cultivate a holistic approach to life, and help them develop and apply a creative growth mindset to themselves,” says Wolek. “The Lab offers tools, frameworks, and practice that students can apply now and as they progress in their path — no matter how their career and life unfold.”
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