On today’s episode of the Illumination by Modern Campus podcast, host Amrit Ahluwalia was joined by Kevin Grubb to discuss the evolution of the perception of higher education and how to take a holistic approach to serving the modern lifelong learner.
Voiceover: Welcome to Illumination by Modern Campus, the leading podcast focused on transformation and change in the higher education space. On today’s episode, we speak with Kevin Grubb, who is Associate Vice Provost of Career and Professional Development at Villanova University. Kevin and podcast host Amrit Ahluwalia discuss the evolution of the perception of higher education and how to take a holistic approach to serving the modern lifelong learner.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:02):Kevin, welcome to the Illumination Podcast. It's great to be chatting with you.
Kevin Grubb (00:05):Thank you so much. I'm excited to be with you.
Amrit Ahluwalia (00:08):Well, let's start off just by level setting a little bit. You know, obviously we've seen demands of perceptions of the higher education space really evolve over the past three to five years, especially. I'm curious, why is it important for higher ed leaders today to be focused on workforce and professional development does as a sort of core component of what the institution does?
Kevin Grubb (00:31):That is a great question. And there's certainly been a lot of evolution of that specifically over the last three to five years, and even a little bit over the last 10. Since the Great Recession, there's been a, a pretty big shift in the reason that people choose to go to higher education. It's always been a big reason that people attend to learn something new. And in some, a lot of the survey data that's, it's shown that there's been an increase in the importance of folks to get a better job is a big reason why they would choose to attend college or go on to higher education. And since then, we've seen that continue to, to rise. So since 2007, 2008, 2009, that's only gone up. And especially with the, the crisis that the pandemic created and showed incredible fluctuation in the workforce people are really thinking about the value of higher education and, and what it means for their career and their future and their life.
(01:28): So it's, it's been critical and on people's minds, you know, frankly, who, who is, who's our audience? It's, it's students and learners. And if it's really important to them that it needs to be important to us. And with the rapid evolution of society, with advances in technology and the way that the labor force has shifted quite a bit we need to think about upskilling and reskilling people. So it's about sort of the holistic approach to thinking about learners in our world and what it means to help people be educated stay up to date on what's happening in the workforce, and be participants in the labor market in a way that feels meaningful to them. So certainly a lot of those shifts have changed the way that higher education in the workforce relate to each other and how important we need to value professional development.
Amrit Ahluwalia (02:20):You know, one thing I'm curious about is, as we're kind of highlighting this, this broad topic and, and this sort of shift in focus is there's always two elements that'll influence how an idea takes root. There's, its sort of acceptability from a cultural perspective and the acceptability from an operational perspective. And I, I feel like those two things ultimately drive the, I guess, ferocity with which a strategic idea takes root. So I'm curious, as you think about sort of the, the, the operational piece, the cultural piece, what are some of the biggest gaps for the average higher ed institution when it comes to making, you know, upskilling and reskilling more a part of what the institution does?
Kevin Grubb (03:11):I think a key element of that is the institution's strength and depth of partnership with its community. And that's its immediate regional community and likely it's alumni community who are going to be advocates for the institution, as well as people who can elevate the needs of what's going on in their lives and certainly in their workplaces, which can only then more inform what may need to shift, evolve inside the institution itself. So to have that kind of symbiotic relationship, the give and take is really key. And that is often where gaps might form. And sort of a, a a, a way to consider solving that is something that Villanova does well, which is continues that engagement with our alumni and some of our key organizations that employ our graduates to be on advisory boards for our departments our academic departments, to consistently inform our practice of advising and guiding current students in a variety of programs. So their feedback is something that is very important to be heard in understanding then, you know, how are we shifting and evolving and making sense of this in our curriculum and in things that we do outside curriculum to make sure our, our students and graduates are holistically prepared to succeed, be great influences on society and be great influences in their workplaces. So that, that to me is a, a big gap that exists and can be closed only if done well.
Amrit Ahluwalia (05:06):So let's, let's talk a little bit about that. Cause I know one of your, you and your team are, are building these, these tight interrelationships between sort of the university and the community in terms of engaging local industry. I mean, it's, it's kind of fascinating, right? Because I think now I'm going on a tangent, but when we think about the concept of town gown relations, you kind of think about animal house a little bit. You think about the, you know, how do we make sure that the campus community and the community itself really connect in a way that that's, that's fruitful and meaningful, that people in the community see the value of the university being there. But I feel like it goes so far beyond that today because there's an opportunity for the university to play a genuinely massive role in the socioeconomic development and growth of a community. There's an opportunity for the university to meaningfully impact the lives day to day of the people who live around the institution, not so much about helping them understand why having kids come in and out every year is a good idea, but it's more about like, actively creating opportunities for, for people in the community to be successful. So what's some of the, some examples of the work you and your team have done to create those, those bonds and those internal relationships with the folks that live in and around the university?
Kevin Grubb (06:17):Well, a, a number of things happen at Villanova, certainly that not just the teams that I work with can take credit for but something that is very deeply embedded in the mission and the Augustinian values that sort of are, are core to Villanova. A big one is service. So there are tons of opportunities for Villanovans not only students, but students of all ages and backgrounds, but also our faculty and staff to be involved in forms of service to our communities, all around us. So there's lots of ways that we are not only a presence from an economic mobility standpoint and an economics an economic driver for the region, but there's also ways that we make sure that we're present in our communities within and for people. So that's a huge element that I can't miss out on talking about because it's so core to Villanova and such a, a, a big part of who we are and why we maintain positive relationships with our communities around us from a, a career and professional development standpoint.
(07:28): What I'd say is we're, we're thinking a lot about how we create industry specific partnerships with people and folks in our area that drive some of these conversations that help us shape our curriculum, shape our professional development shape, the way that we prepare people for the future. So one specific example I'll just mention that happened this past semester that we're concluding now is in the biotechnology space, which is rapidly advancing and growing. We have a lot of students interested in that. And it's you know, a field that is, again, evolving very fast and getting a lot of venture capital funding to advance because it's, there's a lot of potential. But that can make it a little bit tough to navigate from a, how do I get into this field perspective, because there's so many avenues and so many things rapidly changing.
(08:20):So we together with some folks in our biology and chemistry department, in our engineering department departments, we brought back some of our alums who work in biotechnology to essentially provide a bootcamp for our students and even for some of our faculty and staff, to learn about what's the language and culture in biotechnology right now? How can you translate some of your skills that you're learning in the classroom that you've done in research projects into the field? How can you leverage those things to be successful? Which again, then informs the way that we'll continue to educate and advise students and in our community about what that field is like and how to be literate in the way that they're talking about their industry right now. So it, it's sort of embedded in a ton of ways that we do work at Villanova which helps us stay plugged in.
Amrit Ahluwalia (09:11):It's always exciting to hear about those kinds of opportunities cuz it, it shows that, you know, pro professional development, career education, it doesn't necessarily, it, it shouldn't happen in a silo. It really is an opportunity to, to create a tight alignment all the way through the institution in terms of how learners that of all ages are thinking about their opportunities and the applicability of, of, of their learning. Pivoting a bit from opportunities to challenges. I know you're supposed to go the other way, <laugh> but when, you know, when it comes to scaling this this work creating opportunities for folks to, to access up-skilling and re-skilling programming, ensuring that programming is, is up to date and relevant. What are some of the biggest obstacles that that higher ed can at higher ed institutions can face in trying to create these opportunities for learners and to engage employers?
Kevin Grubb (10:06):I think the biggest challenge in the scale element is the, the exact opposite, which is personalization. Very individual obviously. But for people to truly acquire a skill and learn it, master it, understand it, there is a, an essential component a lot of times, which is that of feedback and the person asking questions and they're being relevant and delivered information back on how to tweak that or, or get that right or advance the, and deepen the learning just a little bit. So it's, it, it is tough to scale and personalize at the same time like that. And that's something that Villanova is tackling head on. We have a, it's a relatively new college that's been formed. It's called the College of Professional Studies, and that's exactly the kind of work that they are advancing and doing in addition to our other colleges and schools at the university.
(11:03):But is to think about this upskilling and reskilling of adult learners and to understand, you know, what things can we scale? What things can we personalize? How do we make sure that the learning is truly acquired and there's depth so that when that person takes that credential that they've earned at Villanova and moves on to the workforce, they can speak about that fluently. They can really bring that mastery of knowledge and skill to the next thing that they're doing. So I just mentioned the College of Professional Studies as an example of a way that we're thinking about that, but it, it is the, the hurdle and challenge there for sure is this idea of scale and personalizing at the same time because that's often what learners need most. And what can be sacrificed when you think about scale and massive application.
Amrit Ahluwalia (11:50):It is kind of interesting. You think they're, they're almost seem like diametrically opposed ideas, but I guess with, you know, with the right strategy, with the right tools, you, it really is accomplishable. One thing I'm curious about, because I'm, I'm a nerd about these kinds of things. How, where does the culture professional studies sit within the structure of the institution? Like your your titles, you're the associate vice provost professional development, your executive director of the Career Center. How do those things intersect with the College of Professional Studies and where do you see c P s starting to engage with other parts of the institution in meaningful ways?
Kevin Grubb (12:28):Well, they do it very well. So and I, I, I have a, I have a strong love for the work that they do, and I'm, I'm quite close with the, the dean of that college who I have great admiration for. So what's I think pretty exciting and possibly unique about the way that we structure things at Villanova is the College of Professional Studies reports into the provost. So our chief Academic Officer as do our other schools and colleges at the university. And my role, which you named in the title has provost in it. So I also report to the provost. So I am situated inside the academic environment of the university. So the people who are my, you know, peers in my immediate unit are folks who are looking at curriculum, looking at structure of, of the academics at the university. And so I'm, I get to be involved in those conversations really regularly, which helps a lot.
(13:27): Because the ways then that we think about career and professional development and the evolution of a person in their professional identity is not, you know, disconnected from how they're thinking about their studies. These things are connected. So in each of our schools and colleges at the university, there are embedded professional development programs. They are not separate. So my role is both to lead the central career center that supports all students and alumni, but also have a connection to the professional development teams and programs that are, again, embedded in our schools and colleges. So there's a deep connection between professional studies, their team and our team and making sure that as we're thinking about what they're studying and learning, we're also thinking about how to make sure that they're connected to application and practical experience. So together we make that happen. So again, the way that we've structured this is career and professional development is embedded in your academic experience. It's part of the experience, not something you have to go seek or find. And so that holistic integration then really gets to bring all these things together which makes it quite exciting to see.
Amrit Ahluwalia (14:39):That's really interesting. And then how do you go that step further? I mean, what, what does it take to build lasting relationships with employers and industry leaders? And, you know, especially in a competitive marketplace like, like Philadelphia, how do you ensure that Villanova stands out as, as a premier you know, training and learning provider?
Kevin Grubb (15:00):So a lot of it is being proactive about seeking feedback and about making sure that you stay nimble and listening to that feedback from those folks who are, you know, your, your potential partners in that, in the region, which for us, of course, is Philadelphia. But more broadly because we draw students from across the US too. So thinking about who some of our key stakeholders are and making sure we stay with them and we stay attuned to what they're thinking, hearing, seeing, and certainly how they feel about Villanova's methods of preparing our students and graduates to be successful. So what, what are they seeing from our students in graduates and what can we be doing to, to do better? And again, engaging them in some of our councils, engaging them in the ways that we are a part of our communities. Those things are critical. So in ways that we can strategically also embed them into the work that we do that's already embedded. It just keeps the ties close. So that feedback loop can remain strong. But the key is once you build it, you know, you have to really stay with it. You have to keep your eyes and ears open and be o and be ready to receive what might be important feedback for you to consider. So that's something that we are constantly cultivating.
Amrit Ahluwalia (16:23):So I'm curious, you know, as you, you watched a, an industry and transformation, you've obviously worked to create some pretty interesting change at Villanova itself around the way that, you know, programming related to upskilling, reskilling and, and career opportunities developed. What are some of the trends you're keeping a close eye on and, you know, what trends do you expect to have a, a lasting impact on, on the way that higher ed institutions intersect with this segment of the space?
Kevin Grubb (16:51):Hmm. I think we're at the, at still somewhat of the beginning stages of the ways that generative artificial intelligence will impact work, living all sorts of things. So I'll be very curious to pay attention to how that's shifting things. And we've already heard some of the impacts that people expect to happen to workforces. So that's gonna be really critical for us to not lose sight of and lead into. As that continues to shift, of course climate change is a big thing to be paying attention to, not only because of the moral and ethical imperative of it, but also the way it is shifting policy shifting the way that we live, work and be those that is of course, significant for us to pay attention to. And I think as we continue to be a world that is interconnected, so what's happening in the geopolitical environment, you know, makes a lot of difference for our students who are, are international students that come to us from other countries paying attention to what's happening with workforces in those places and the United States.
(18:17):It makes a big impact. Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> on the experience that they have with us and, and where they head to next, and how we think about, you know, what we might do to prepare them for where they're going next. So those are, you know, just a, a few of the sort of macro trends that I think are, are critical for us to stay with as we think about what it means to prepare people for the next generation of the workforce and life. And I say that very specifically. Sometimes I think we can get into this false dichotomy of we're either preparing people for work or life in higher education, and I think we're preparing them for both. And so we have to be thoughtful about upskilling and reskilling, but also just preparing people for society and living and helping advance the common good which is critical to Villanova.
Amrit Ahluwalia (19:06):I wanna stay on that for a moment because it's a really, really important point that I think we, it falls somewhere between the line of assumed and forgotten about, and we think about the role of a post-secondary institution is this idea of the connectivity between sort of education as a driver of good citizenry education as a driver of labor, labor market success, and then what the continuing role of the institution is in an individual's life past their, you know, achievement or, or completion of, of their, their first credential. How do you start to stitch those pieces together for a more, say, traditionally academic audience? And how do you position the university over time to continue to be a landing spot for individuals to keep coming back to, as, you know, a a learning partner over the, over the course of their lives, as again opposed to, you know, this place that they went once as a teenager and, and kind of come back to for football games. Or I guess basketball games in, in your case.
Kevin Grubb (20:13): And many other things. <Laugh> theater performance our president who is fantastic, he is, he is from the theater. We fundraise for an incredibly beautiful theater space. So I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight the arts and culture in things that people come back for. In addition to, of course, our fantastic sports
(20:36):So both, and also on that front. So yes I think, you know, in talking about, so I think what you mentioned is how to speak to that connection to a traditional academic audience, and then sort of how do you blend those things in as an institution? So to part one, how do you speak about that, to add a traditionally academic audience? The thread for me in, in that the connection between, you know, workforce success and professional life and success as, as an educated citizen, the thread for me is about wellbeing. Because all of this connects to a, an individual's sense of self, their purpose, what matters to them, what they get up and get outta bed for. And, and all of those things are intertwined in your educated citizen citizenship and your, your professional success. Hopefully, you know, we're helping people both acquire skills and information and, and, and be successful in the workforce.
(21:40):And we're also very much hopefully helping them acquire information and skills of self-understanding and what's going to make them feel like they are living a life that is meaningful to them. And that can be expressed in a number of ways. It can be expressed in the way you engage with society and, and, and, and contribute to the common good. It can be expressed through ways that you execute your professional life and your professional identity. Those things can be merged at the same time. You can be doing good and doing well. So it's, it's, for me, sort of the thread is wellbeing and wellness in your life and your professional success is certainly a, a part of wellbeing and your wellness. So to me that's sort of the thread that, that connects those two that I would speak to, to folks to say, we're all in this for that reason, right?
(22:34):Individual wellness and communal wellness. And that's important. And then how to keep that thread tied with higher education. You know, w at large is, is sort of, that's on the individual level, you know, what I spoke to before and connecting that, like at the macro level, right? Like, we obviously want a successful workforce that will produce great things for us. We also want an educated and connected society cuz that keeps, that's the fabric of life <laugh> that keeps us all together and moving. And so as we think about our, our larger purpose and mission that is important. And what's wonderful about a place like Villanova is that's, that sense of connectedness is deeply embedded in the common thread of what is our Catholic Augustinian mission and values. So it, it stays tied here because it's tied to mission. And so higher ed institutions can do well by thinking about that mission alignment that then is the thread instead of wellbeing being the thread for the individual. Mission alignment is the thread that keeps those two things together. As an institution.
Amrit Ahluwalia (23:44):That's beautiful. And then also, I mean, it starts to speak to how do we start to, to recognize the individuality and the distinctness of different institutions cuz they're, you know, the, the fungibility of education is a topic that from the evolutions that we've been talking about for years as the idea of how, you know, how do you ensure that there's a reason that someone would look for programming at one institution over another, over another. And it's, you know, the, the post-secondary space has the capacity to be such a diverse tapestry of opportunity, really with, with an opportunity for everyone to find the right learning partner for them. But it only works if, if institutions also recognize that there's uniqueness to what they do and, and why they do it. So Kevin, I, I gotta tell you, man, I, I so appreciate you taking the time out. I so appreciate you sharing these, these perspectives. Now, the most important question I'm gonna ask you, <laugh> as you were chatting a little bit about it earlier, if someone's in, in Philadelphia and they want to go out to dinner, where, where are you sending them?
Kevin Grubb (24:44):Hands down. I'm sending them to Zaha which is an Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia has some of the most delicious food. They should also book very early months in advance cuz it is usually packed. Some of the best food I've ever eaten and by far the best hummus I've ever had in my life. So that would be my place.
Amrit Ahluwalia (25:06):That is an awesome recommendation. Israeli food is unbelievable. Kevin, thank you so much for your time, man. It's been great.
Kevin Grubb (25:14):Thank you very much. Great to be with you.
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