By Leanna Pough
Study, go to class, graduate and land a job — that’s a familiar path to college students searching for the American dream of prosperity.
As part of the process, astute college students seek out mentors or participate in internships to develop career insight. These opportunities can provide valuable tips on what to expect in the future. But what does it really mean to be a member of the American workforce?
Levine Scholar and UNC Charlotte alumnus Austin Halbert sought the answer. The resulting book, “The American Workday: Tales of Life and Work in the United States Today,” published in January 2016, shares stories of America’s workers. It explores how one’s career can affect an individual’s personal life off the clock, along with misconceptions associated with jobs and class.
Horizons Expand with Levine Grant
A native of Shelby, N.C., Halbert attended Crest High School. Growing up in a small town just west of Charlotte, he was exposed to a working-class population and had little understanding of how people lived outside of that lifestyle.
|Austin Halbert is completing a year-long Fulbright Fellowship in Sweden|
“When I became a Levine Scholar, I was given an opportunity to go to school in a diverse city, to travel and meet people from backgrounds that were foreign to me,” noted Halbert. “This taught me so much about people whose conditions I could have only speculated upon before leaving my hometown. As soon as I heard someone’s story directly from them, I was then able to feel empathy for others facing similar circumstances.”
To gain a better understanding of how society functions, Halbert listened to people’s stories and connected them to larger social trends.
“I believe storytelling is the best way to foster empathy. When I heard discussions in America becoming increasingly divisive — politically, economically and socially — I wanted to find a way to inject a little bit of empathy into the equation. Fortunately, I found many generous people who were willing to share their stories for this purpose,” Halbert said.
During a three-year period, he and fellow Levine Scholars Laura Outlaw and Vrushab Gowda interviewed and photographed 38 diverse workers across occupations. Interviewees ranged from stock clerks to Fortune 500 executives.
Workers Have Similar Motivations
“Most of the workers interviewed were from the Charlotte area, and if they are any indication, the people of Charlotte are an incredibly resilient, compassionate and hard-working bunch,” Halbert said. “I found that each person I spoke to had fundamentally similar motivations: to provide for the people who depended on them, to find pride and dignity through their work and to find balance between working hard and leading a fulfilled life.”
A member of the Class of 2015, Halbert completed a bachelor’s degree in management with a concentration in organizational management. He also earned a minor in economics.
“The American Workday” was funded through a grant from the Levine Scholars Program, which enabled Halbert to complete the work. The book is endorsed by the Global Engagement Summit and the Clinton Global Initiative University. Proceeds from the book, available at www.americanworkday.com in hardcover and e-book formats, benefit Charlotte Works and Hired Heroes, organizations working to end unemployment by matching jobless citizens with workforce-training opportunities.
In September 2015, Halbert began a yearlong Fulbright graduate research fellowship at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg School of Business, Economics and Law. He is studying sustainable development through an assessment of public-private partnerships. Additionally, he is interviewing government and business officials in the capital of Stockholm.
Sustainability Across Sectors
“My mission is to find out how institutions approach social, economic and environmental sustainability across sectors and to determine what can be done to further efforts,” explained Halbert. “Sweden is a world leader in sustainability and innovation, so hopefully these insights can serve as a lesson for institutions around the world on how to meet the needs of society while growing strong businesses.”
Interviewees have included ministers and ambassadors for the Swedish government, as well as top executives at global companies such as Ericsson, Electrolux, Ikea and H&M.
The Fulbright program is one of the largest and most prestigious international exchange programs in the world today. Its main objective is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the citizenry of other nations through the sharing of ideas, knowledge, skills and individual experiences.
Recently, Halbert was appointed to the Youth Working Group for the U.S. National Commission to UNESCO. The 12 American leaders who make up the group endeavor to engage youth and share UNESCO’s mission of international peace and universal respect.
“As a new member of the Youth Working Group, I am leading the creation of the UNESCO Action Coalition, which will pair young activists and social entrepreneurs with experienced mentors in their fields. The mission is to connect new and experienced generations of change-makers, while providing guidance to high-impact projects focused on sustainable development,” Halbert explained.
With the help of two co-founders he has met while conducting research in Sweden, Halbert is also planning the launch of a social enterprise he calls “ImpactEd,” which will empower universities to bring real-world problem solving into the classroom.
Leanna Pough is communications coordinator in the Office of Public Relations.