Online portfolios capture the liberal arts experience
By Rhea Hirshman
Carolyn Kimmick ’15 admits that she didn’t know exactly what she was getting into when she signed up for “COLL 199. The Trinity Portfolio Program” in the fall of her senior year. “I was interested in doing something a little different,” she says, “and had heard a lot of positive comments about Rachael and Sue.”
Now, having graduated with a double major in Hispanic studies and international studies and well into her work as a financial research analyst, Kimmick says that the quarter-credit course — known as “the portfolio class” — was instrumental in helping her to understand and to communicate the totality of her college experience and to see herself as someone who could be a valuable asset to an employer. “I learned to communicate the value and applicability of everything I had experienced in my life, inside and outside of classes. Most important was learning to show how courses seemingly unrelated to my future career provided me with an advantage over others looking to do the same job.”
Guided by “Rachael and Sue” — Rachael Barlow, social science research and data coordinator, and instructional technologist Sue Denning — students in the course develop online portfolios. These portfolios are individualized websites that connect and showcase their activities and accomplishments. The course culminates each time in a “launch party” to which students are required to invite one faculty member, coach, or other adviser, as well as two friends. “The launch party adds to the conversations that students have about the narratives they are constructing,” Barlow says.
The idea for a portfolio program was one of several proposals presented at a Mellon grant-funded faculty retreat held in the fall of 2011 to discuss how to enhance both academic and nonacademic life in preparation for Trinity’s 200th birthday in 2023. Developed by engineering professors Dave Ahlgren and John Mertens, the original concept was for an “advising portfolio” created in a course that would give selected students the opportunity to work closely with a faculty member in small-group settings over their four years at Trinity. The goal would be to build an electronic portfolio containing examples of students’ best academic work that could be sent to potential employers.
Since its initial run led by Mertens in the spring and fall of 2013, the portfolio program has been developed into a course taught every semester by Barlow and Denning; about a dozen students are enrolled each time.
In addition, the concept of “a portfolio” has changed. With the idea that a portfolio should highlight the core liberal arts competencies of critical thinking, problem solving, and communication, Denning says, two insights developed. “The first was that to make a difference in students’ lives, the portfolio process should be reflective; students need to be thinking about why they are doing their work, what it means to them, and how it factors into their development.”
The second insight was that focusing a portfolio only on classroom work excludes a great deal of the learning that happens on a liberal arts campus. “There is sociological evidence to support the idea that what students do outside of the classroom is as important as what they do in it,” notes Barlow. “Athletics, internships, Greek life, clubs and organizations, community service, travel abroad — students need to be able to think critically about and articulate how what they do outside of the classroom links to their academic lives.”
In and Beyond the Classroom
Monica DiFiori ’16 describes those links becoming clear as she engaged in the portfolio process. A neuroscience major and Italian studies minor, DiFiori took the course as a sophomore and then again in the fall of her senior year (students may enroll up to four times during their Trinity careers). “As a sophomore,” she says, “I hadn’t really thought about my college career as a whole. Working through the course with Rachael and Sue, I began to see how I could build a story.” Now in the process of applying to medical school to pursue a career in sports medicine, DiFiori is developing her portfolio to reflect not only her academic accomplishments but her love of travel, her success as a varsity soccer player — she hopes to play on a semi-pro team while taking two gap years after graduation — and her passion for Italian food and culture. “Building a portfolio made me think more deeply, not only about what I was doing,” DiFiori says, “but about how I want to present myself to others, especially to medical schools and future employers.”
Jett McAlister, associate director of Trinity’s Career Development Center (CDC), notes that a major focus for the CDC staff is helping students like Kimmick and DiFiori articulate to employers the value of their liberal arts experience. At the same time that creating the portfolios helps students discover for themselves how everything fits together, McAlister says, “looking at portfolios can show us in the CDC something we may not have known, allowing us to further individualize the coaching we give our students.”
Currently, there are about 150 Trinity student portfolio sites, with many created through enrollment in the portfolio program course and the remaining developed independently or through other programs. Going forward, because of increased interest and the need to cap the number in the class, many additional students who create portfolios will not be enrolled in the course. Currently, portfolios are being built by students doing theses in economics, and the intent is to bring in other thesis programs. In addition, more first-year students are being encouraged to start portfolios. Portfolio sites are particularly encouraged for those in HPAP, the Health Professions Advising Program, to demonstrate core competencies desired by medical schools. And while the portfolio program course offers ongoing tech help, structure, and peer interaction, Barlow and Denning also run specific workshops for the associated programs and provide support to those working independently.
“The students who build portfolios are making the most of a liberal arts education,” Denning says. “Everyone has an interesting story; students who build portfolios learn how to tell it. They don’t have to win an award or be in a certain program to have pride in their accomplishments.”
Barlow adds, “I run Trinity’s senior exit interview project. One of the most common comments we hear is that seniors wish they had ‘done more’ outside the classroom earlier in college. They regret not getting ‘more involved.’ Our hope is that students who start on portfolios as first-years, particularly when they are in contact with juniors and seniors working on theirs, might be more likely to begin that involvement.”
For more information about the program, including a showcase of student portfolios, please visit portfolios.trincoll.edu