Series note: This is the first in a five-part weekly series featuring “discovery majors” at Penn State.
Tucked away in the basement of the Keller Building is an academic department that is celebrating its 70th anniversary at Penn State, has an active alumni network, graduates seniors who find placement in the job market and offers unique classes such as Collective Bargaining in Pro Sports.
But many may have never known it exists.
That’s because the labor and employment relations major, housed in the Labor Studies and Employment Relations Department, is what department head Paul Clark refers to as a “discovery major.” Freshmen rarely come to Penn State knowing they want to major in LER, Clark said. Rather, as they begin taking classes and researching, they “discover” that the major is a perfect fit for them.
With more than 160 majors at Penn State, choosing one (or two) can be both an exciting and daunting endeavor. Many students graduate without ever knowing the opportunities that were available to them, or they discover a major when it is too late, Clark said.
When Davis Smith, Class of 2011, came to Penn State, he took introductory classes in the Smeal College of Business as well as psychology classes. But neither department combined both of his interests.
“I found out about LER and that sounded like it was something that was applicable to the business side of things, while also helping people and seeing what motivates them,” Smith said.
After graduation, Smith landed a position in a human resources rotational program with Liberty Mutual in Boston.
Though many students who graduate with an LER degree do go on to work in human resources, Smith said the best thing about his degree is that it gives graduates the chance to change career paths.
“If you major in accounting, you’re going to be an accountant. If you study finance, you’re going to go into finance,” Smith said. “LER gives you flexibility.”
Doug Allen, a professor of practice in the LSER Department, knows firsthand that an LER degree can lead to many different opportunities. After graduating from Penn State in 1973 and then going on to play professional football for the Buffalo Bills, Allen accepted a position as an assistant executive director for the NFL Players Association. In 2007, Allen was named executive director of the Screen Actors Guild, before coming to Penn State to share his knowledge of the workforce with his students.
“[LER is] a great degree because it is a liberal arts degree that you can use to get a job,” Allen said.
Since LSER is a smaller department than some of the giants at Penn State, students like Ethan Pitts appreciate the smaller class sizes and closer relationships with faculty.
“I didn’t really like business classes because they were too big,” said Pitts, who is completing his final year in an integrated BS/MS program in human resources and employment relations. “In the LSER department I liked the small classes, the faculty, and it was more applied [than business].”
Graduates of Penn State’s LER program also tend to stay connected and give back to current students, said Katelyn Perry, an academic adviser in the department.
Realizing the growing amount of globalization in the workforce, LER alumni created a pool of money to be distributed to LER students who wish to study abroad, Perry said. Any undergraduate in the LSER department who wishes to study abroad is automatically given a $1,500-$2,500 travel grant, Perry said.
And the strength of the LSER Department is that it is student-centered and has a strong relationship with its close-knit alumni network, Perry said.
“It is a powerful, dynamic department,” she said.