By Lou Canfield
I graduated from Hope College with a double major in History and Political Science in 2001 and have worked for the City of Grand Rapids since 2006. I manage the Design & Development Department, which is responsible for planning and zoning, development review, permits and inspections. My work responsibilities are wide ranging including finance and budgeting, human resources, communications, technology administration, policy development and supervision. This is a busy time for our department. The fabric of Grand Rapids is changing rapidly.
I enjoy my work. I think I am an effective organizational leader and our department has a significant role in our community’s success.
My study of History at Hope College helped to prepare me for my career in government administration.
Explaining how it did so isn’t straightforward. I didn’t study local government at Hope. I didn’t learn my day-to- day work activities at Hope. Much of that I learned on the job–from mentors, or by figuring it out, or by creating my own way of doing things. And all of that is built on the foundation of my Hope education.
As a History major, I developed cognitive skills, insights and an understanding of our shared humanity that have served me well in my work. I learned how to ask good questions. I was challenged to consider a broader range of answers than I had before. I learned how to select a tentative answer, how to test it and how to advocate for it. I learned that I could change my own opinions–even long-held ones–based upon new information and insights. I learned how to communicate my ideas persuasively in writing. History professors challenged me to improve my skills in all of those areas. In doing so, they thought me to think differently–and better–than I had before.
This has led to better insights in my work. I accept that the professional challenges I face are not unique. People in similar roles have faced similar challenges for centuries. What are our priorities? How do we motivate people both inside and outside the organization? How much regulation is right in our context? How do we use our current technologies to meet individual, organizational, and societal needs? There is no “right” answer to such questions, but continuing to wrestle with them helps to keep my work interesting, leads me to better insights than I would otherwise have and keeps me focused on serving people rather than just completing a checklist of daily tasks.
If all of this sounds rather general, it is–in the best possible way. Our world needs generalists and I’m proud to be one. Some careers demand and are enhanced by a relentless focus on a single discipline, but government administration isn’t one of those. I am regularly involved in hiring decisions and am consistently drawn to candidates who demonstrate critical thinking and creativity, regardless of their specific training. Employers can easily teach tasks and skills, but we can’t teach employees how to think–colleges are supposed to do that. Hope College does! And the History Department does that particularly well. My experience as a Hope History major prepared me to be a better person and a better administrator and I remain grateful for the History Department faculty members who had such an important impact on my life.