Service-Learning and the First-Year Experience: Fostering Business, Social, and Educational Impact
Sarah Jernigan and Marianne Lewis
The first-year experience offers students a powerful learning opportunity. While the leap into college can be intimidating, students are eager to explore and open to new possibilities. They seek the best campus organizations to join, daydream about studying abroad, and begin contemplating where they will co-op and intern. Given this potential, the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati has long prioritized the first-year experience as the impetus toward shaping well-rounded business professionals. Lindner leadership recognized that to develop business students rapidly and holistically, they should be cultivated as whole persons from the start.
To provide a robust first-year experience, Lindner embedded three immersive projects into the curriculum. The first, Project Strategy, requires students to conduct a SWOT analysis of a local for-profit company and present the analysis to the company at the conclusion of the semester. The second, Project Innovation, stretches students’ entrepreneurial prowess to develop new products or services. The third, Project Impact, steps boldly away from traditional business education and is structured as a semester-long service-learning initiative that partners with local non-profits, while promoting servant leadership and corporate responsibility. Project Impact provides students with the opportunity to solve real-world problems and witness how business education can craft transformative change.
History of Project Impact
Project Impact launched in 2013, providing a vital and distinctive complement to the college’s existing first-year experiences. Each first-year project was developed to help students encounter the benefits and process of experiential learning, while applying varied problem-solving tools to build specific business professional skills and understandings. Having invented cooperative education in 1906, experiential learning is central to the University of Cincinnati approach. Through an exceptionally experiential first-year curriculum, the College of Business sought to prepare and motivate students for their future opportunities, from co-op and internships, to service-learning and study abroad.
Efforts began with Project Strategy, designed to expose students to business concepts and tools, while showcasing major Cincinnati businesses and engaging their leaders. Project Innovation was added soon after, seeking to develop students’ creative and entrepreneurial skills, while exposing them to the start-up ecosystem and its role models. These developments proved highly successful in fostering students’ professional development and career exploration, while also boosting student retention between the first and second year. Yet such improvements assisted business faculty, advisors, and college leaders to identify further opportunities and gaps within the first-year experience.
One such gap was fullfilled by introducing Project Impact. Through implementing service-learning in the first-year experience, Lindner leadership sought to enable synergies for business, social, and educational impact. More specifically, Project Impact opens students’ awareness to the positive power of business and their own professional capacities for civil good, while exposing them to non-profit and social enterprises. The lofty vision of an experiential first-year curriculum challenged project designers to be bold: they aimed to further students’ knowledge of business as a force for good, while also enabling them to discover their personal purpose and career opportunities accordingly.
Logistical Components of Project Impact
Logistics provided a major challenge for Project Impact, given its role as a large scale service-learning experience (i.e., engaging all incoming Lindner first-years, ranging from 700-800 students annually). The project is embedded within one of their required first-year courses, Business Pathways, which is taught by students’ business academic advisor. At the beginning of the academic year, students are placed in learning communities, comprised of 15-20 first-year students that take specific courses together and collaborate on the three aforementioned projects. Each learning community is led by a PACE leader, which is Lindner’s version of a teaching assistant. The PACE leader is an upperclassmen student that has previously completed the three projects, and risen as a recognized peer leader. The core PACE leader responsibilities are to serve as project manager, grade assignments related to the projects, and host multiple one-on-ones with students to track their progress. Undoubtedly, PACE leaders are an asset to ensuring the success of the three experiential business projects.
Previous examples of Project Impact initiatives include: social media campaigns, coordinating events/fundraisers, assisting with website design, marketing initiatives, and strategic planning. When recruiting non-profit organizations to participate each year for Project Impact, selection is based on a few components. One consideration is if the college had a previous positive experience with the particular non-profit. If so, the non-profit is extended an invitation to return the subsequent academic year. Albeit, occasionally, even if the non-profit also had previous auspicious encounters with business students, they may not have a new project or idea to propose for Project Impact. Lastly, when recruiting, effort is geared to ensure there is diversity among the project proposals – both diversity with the mission of the non-profits and nature of the proposed projects. Previous examples of non-profit partners for Project Impact include: American Red Cross, Breakthrough Cincinnati, Cincinnati Health Department, Freestore Foodbank, Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, Price Hill Will, and Village Life Outreach Project.
When recruited, non-profit representatives are asked to provide a proposed project for their business related service-learning initiative. As the current purpose of the Lindner College of Business is to empower business problem solvers to tackle the world’s challenges, non-profits are asked to submit their proposals in the form of problems. Throughout the semester, students theorize or enact solutions for the proposed problems. In addition, at least one non-profit representative is expected to attend the class twice. Once at the outset of the term, to introduce their organization and suggested problems. The second at the conclusion of the semester to hear the students’ pitches of proposed or enacted solutions to the problems. Frequently, the non-profit representatives are impressed with the caliber of the students’ solutions.
Changes Over Time for Project Impact
Project Impact has evolved over the years, particularly regarding three areas: business focus for the projects, growth of incoming student population, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Over time, emphasis for Project Impact has been placed increasingly on achieving the learning component of service-learning rather than only completing service. During previous years, some proposed Project Impact initiatives, while still highlighting an important need for the non-profit, did not encompass the opportunity for students to apply their business acumen. As Project Impact occurs during the second semester of their first year, students have already taken a semester of business courses, explored pertinent business theories, and completed a SWOT analysis for a local company. As such, they are capable of applying newly learned business skills toward Project Impact. Recently, dedicated efforts have been made to ensure proposed problems have a strong business focus in order for students to engage in a true service-learning experience.
Each year, the business first-year class grows, with current projected numbers for the 2021-2022 academic year at 850 incoming students. While growth can be advantageous, it also places strain on current practices and processes. This tension is exhibited via Project Impact. Previously, each learning community was paired with a non-profit. Three learning communities are placed within each Business Pathways course, meaning an academic advisor worked with three non-profits for each of their classes. Based on section offerings, the college partnered with 36 non-profits for Project Impact 2020. While 36 partnerships are admirable, with projected increased Business Pathways section offerings, pressure existed to find an increasing number of non-profits that could propose stellar projects. Ergo, the decision was made to curtail the number of non-profit partnerships for Project Impact 2021.
Instead of each learning community being paired with a separate non-profit, the three learning communities within a Business Pathways course all collaborated with the same non-profit. Thus, there was only one non-profit per Business Pathways class, making the total number of non-profits involved this year twelve. Village Life Outreach Project is an example of one of the non-profits from 2021. To reduce redundancy and provide incentive, a competitive element was introduced, encouraging the three learning communities to engage in friendly competition to provide the best solutions. Guest judges were invited to the end-of-semester student pitches and the leading learning community received extra credit toward their assignment. While improvements can always be made, the overall novel structure was received well by students, instructors, and nonprofits alike.
The ubiquitous influence of the COVID-19 pandemic did have ramifications for Project Impact. Unfortunately, Project Impact 2020 took place during the initial outbreak and closures, causing many of the events students had been planning to be cancelled. When recruiting for Project Impact 2021, potential non-profit partners were encouraged to present problems that resulted from, or were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, site visits of the non-profit are typically a component of Project Impact. This year, site visits were optional based on the organization’s level of comfort and availability. Lastly, many Business Pathways courses were still taught in person during the pandemic, providing one of the very few opportunities for students to have in-person experiences. However, non-profit representatives had the option of attending class sessions either in person or virtually, based on their needs.
Repeatedly, business students remark that engaging with Project Impact is one of the most meaningful and insightful experiences of their first year. Students appreciate the opportunity to expand their business purview while also contributing to worthwhile endeavors. So, what’s next for Lindner? Efforts are currently being made to consider similar experiential projects for later in business students’ academic careers. These efforts are essential to replicate experiences for transfer students that transition into Lindner after their first year. Service-learning initiatives, such as Project Impact, are so vital for Lindner as they provide a unique opportunity for students to engage in social responsibility and adopt a servant leadership mindset.
Learn more about Project Impact at Linder College of Business here. This video is shown to all first-year students as an introduction to Project Impact.
Sarah Jernigan is an academic advisor for the Lindner College of Business at the University of Cincinnati. Her work at the business college includes teaching a first-year seminar, leading efforts related to Project Impact, supervising the first-year experience teaching assistants, and meeting individually with undergraduate students to assist them with their academic goals. She is also a Ph.D. candidate at UC studying educational and community-based action research with an emphasis in higher education. Her dissertation work explores international student mental health. Additionally, Sarah is passionate about researching and supporting refugees and has conducted several research studies analyzing refugee health.
Marianne W. Lewis, PhD, is the tenth dean and professor of management at the Carl H. Lindner College of Business University of Cincinnati. Previously, she has served as dean of the Cass Business School, City, University of London and as a UK Fulbright. Lewis has earned numerous teaching and research awards throughout her academic career. An international expert on organizational paradoxes, her research explores tensions and competing demands surrounding leadership and innovation. She applies her renowned paradox lens across such diverse contexts as strategy, product development, organizational change, governance and technology implementation. Her paper, “Exploring paradox: Toward a more comprehensive guide,” received the Academy of Management Review Best Paper Award in 2000 and is among the most cited in the field. Her work appears in such top journals as the Harvard Business Review, Academy of Management Journal, Organization Science, Journal of Operations Management, and Human Relations. Lewis earned her MBA from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University and PhD from the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky.