To remain relevant, auxiliaries are expected to contribute in ways significant to campus leaders. While traditionally financial, these contributions can be more than that. The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater has received the attention of campus leaders, and also from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) by showing that through on-campus student employment, auxiliaries can contribute to higher graduation and retention rates.
The James R. Connor University Center (UC) at UW-Whitewater encompasses a wide range of auxiliaries including ID card services, campus tickets, meeting room operations, bowling lanes, and dining. For five years, the UC has focused on an additional bottom line – the learning connections and life skills of student employees.
The impetus? The University of Wisconsin System making a commitment to LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), a national initiative by AAC&U, which stresses the importance of students obtaining a twenty-first century liberal education.
When the UC was invited to be a partner on the LEAP initiative, executive director Bob Barry saw an opportunity to demonstrate relevance of campus auxiliaries to student learning. He formed a team that attended a two-day LEAP workshop on campus. The team explored ways the UC could study the principles and learning outcomes, and to adapt language that staff and students could embrace. These principles are identified by AAC&U as the “Essential Learning Outcomes” (ELO’s), and are at the center of what employers are looking for in today’s college graduates.
As the UC began its research on how to connect with LEAP and the ELO’s, it was helpful to learn from AAC&U what employers are seeking in college graduates. In an article published in January 2015, AAC&U research indicates: “Employers say when hiring, they place the greatest value on written and communication skills, teamwork skills, ethical decision making, critical thinking, and the ability to apply knowledge in real world settings.”
After months of discussions, writing and revisions, the UC now has a program that resonates with staff and students. The UC LEAP program is first introduced to student employees in position descriptions, as tasks are outlined to fit into the four main ELO’s and their subcategories. Next, students are exposed to LEAP during onboarding sessions just prior to starting work in their respective departments. From there, LEAP principles are discussed at UC Orientation, and are published in the UC Student Employee Handbook. A UC LEAP brochure is also included in folders for each student. Additionally, monthly meetings are held with each department where ELO’s are explored with students, and their responses are recorded and printed in a master document.
Some of the student testimonies include statements like:
“LEAP gives me an advantage over the other students I’m competing against for the jobs I’m applying for.” – Andy Greene
“I created a video to promote Warhawk Ally and I used it for class credit.” – Kevin Hefferan
“…The skills I have learned in the UC will transfer very well into real world applications.” – Bonnie Lee
Discussions with students also focus on how they, and we, can be inclusive in our daily actions and operations. At the close of each semester, students are asked to write and submit a LEAP self-assessment, as well as participate in an evaluation meeting with their supervisors. The evaluation tool was designed to incorporate each of the ELO’s, as well as the UC’s emphasis on a positive attitude.
Another question asked of students is what they would want their supervisors to say in a letter of recommendation about their communication skills, creative problem solving abilities, intercultural competence, ability to convey a “can-do attitude,” evidence of being a team player and more. The staff has discovered that students are more engaged in their learning and application of learning to their classroom experiences, and in what they describe as career goals.
As Barry articulates, he hopes that students will realize the connections sooner than he was able to in his own career path.
“When I was an undergraduate, I only focused on my degree as a piece of paper,” he said. “Nobody initiated conversations with me to help me connect the myriad of university experiences with my goals in life.”
He emphasizes, “our staff takes time to have meaningful conversations with our student employees, helping them reflect on how experiences they have outside of the classroom connect with the ELO’s, their classroom learning, their chosen majors, and ultimately to their life goals. Our objective is to help them realize every aspect of their educational experience as contributing to their degree.”
In a spring 2014 survey conducted with UC students regarding their on-campus employment, significant results were recorded with regard to their self assessment of improved critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, teamwork skills, etc.
The UC staff recently heard a testimony from a student employee in front of the UW System Board of Regents when UW-Whitewater hosted a two-day meeting in September 2015. Colleen Dyer, student manager of the HawkCard (ID) Office, said “I have grown personally through LEAP in my leadership skills and confidence during my employment at the University Center. Three years ago, I would not be standing here talking with you. I would be walking very quickly in the opposite direction.” She went on to say, “LEAP and the Essential Learning Outcomes have prepared me to work in a professional setting after graduation by giving me the skills and knowledge that employers are looking for.”
Additional examples of LEAP in action at the University Center include:
Student Manager Program: Led by the associate director and assistant facilities director – students discuss topics for lead workers, including supervising peers, scheduling, teaching accountability and creative problem solving, understanding strengths, etc. The program also helps students explore leadership styles and how to be effective leaders among a diverse student population.
Student Marketing Committee: Members of different departments meet with the UC promotions coordinator to design marketing strategies that will grab the attention of today’s students. Time is also spent on how to contribute to inclusivity in the UC. Developing, implementing, and assessing strategies are skills students further refine by serving on the committee.
Core Branding Study: Involved an 18-month study facilitated by a core team to learn how customers view the UC. This included staff and students reading and discussing The Brand Gap by Marty Neumeier. Members from the student marketing committee were fully engaged in the study and gave input on a new logo and slogan for the UC (“Getting U Connected”), apparel guidelines, customer service standards, and improving centralized policies and procedures.
The success of involving students in the core branding study is still being realized today. The UC receives more applications for student employment every semester, and students report in interviews that they hear the UC is a great place to work and learn with staff. Additionally, retention and graduation rates have increased over the past few years. Recent tracking shows that both retention and graduation rates for UC student employees are higher than the all-campus average.
Other Key Committees: Students are selected to serve on various UC committees. These include the UC Board, Dining Services Committee, Summer on the Mall Committee, End of Semester Recognition Committee, UC Orientation Committee, etc. Involvement from students is seen as critical to the success of the UC. Just as important is their reflection on what they are learning and application of learning to their classroom experiences, field studies, and future careers.
Internships: Students from different disciplines have had additional opportunities to earn academic credit while working in the UC. This allows for connections with academic departments and faculty who advise the interns. UC students have earned internship credit in human resources, communication, marketing and botany. Students who sign up for these opportunities participate in online discussions and submit weekly reflections.
Association of College Unions International (ACUI) and National Association for Campus Activities (NACA): Students submit applications to attend these conferences. Following their participation, students write reflection papers, present on content learned, and connections that can be made to the UC. Students are asked to dig deep and to make recommendations for improvements in each of their departments.
The bottom line is student employees outnumber full-time staff and collectively work more hours than professional staff. Their buy-in and commitment to enhancing the educational process is at the core of the UC mission. The focus on LEAP ELO’s is proving to help student employees understand that they are making connections that count, and that will better prepare them for today’s work force. An added benefit is that the UC is seen as a leader on campus and in the region.
In the future, the UC team hopes to further develop a system of measuring students’ retention of application of the ELO’s, as well as the overall impact of the student employment program.
For more information about the UC LEAP program, contact Kim Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org. A video focusing on student perspectives of “Working in the James R. Connor University Center” can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ObRISHUxp90.