Turning Lemons into Lemonade
Clearing Hurdles for Service-Learning Partners During the 2020 Pandemic
The University of Cincinnati (UC) is a very large (approximately 47,000 students) public institution of higher education located in the heart of the city. A major claim to fame, among others, is that it is the birthplace of the co-op learning model and home to one of the top five co-op programs in the nation according to U.S. News and World Report (2021).
Since its inception in 1906, UC’s co-op program has developed a robust support system for connecting students from the engineering, design, art, architecture, planning, and computing disciplines with paid, career-relevant work experiences that have enabled them to practice their skills, improve their learning, and gain experience that makes them competitive candidates immediately upon graduation. In fact, many of UC’s co-op students never have to enter the job market since they often accept offers of employment from one of their co-op employers before they even graduate.
The co-op learning model, alternating semesters of full-time work with semesters of full-time study, has worked extremely well for students in those programs, but the students in non-co-op majors often struggle to find similar paid opportunities to gain experience and develop their skills. This is especially problematic for students in the arts and sciences since those students’ career options, as well as the skills they have to offer, are less well-defined.
In 2010, the Academic Internship Program was developed to help non-co-op students gain professional experience and it has been successful in helping many of them to navigate the process of exploring career options, develop their marketing materials, find and apply for internships, ace their interviews, and conduct themselves in a professional manner during their internship experience; however, it became apparent that low-income and underrepresented students needed more support in connecting with these opportunities.
In 2018, a partnership was created between the Work Study office, the Division of Experience-Based Learning and Career Education, and the Gen-1 program, a competitive program that supports first generation, degree-seeking, Pell-eligible students. The goal of this collaboration was to help students from the Gen-1 program secure paid internships with a nonprofit partner leveraging the Work Study program for which all Gen-1 students qualify. The partnership was supported by a one-time grant from the Haile Foundation that was used to pay the 25% of the student’s salary that is not covered by Work Study on behalf of the nonprofit partner. Work Study pays the other 75%. The program was hugely successful and enabled many students to gain experience, earn money, and make informed decisions about their personal career aspirations based on what they had learned during their internship. Nonprofits enjoyed having the opportunity to work with students and gain assistance with important projects at no cost to them.
The Work Study partnership established a streamlined hiring and payroll process for nonprofit partners. Creating strategies that remove obstacles from hiring student employees has been a way for us to expand the number of partners and opportunities for students. Since the university pays these students directly, there is no need to put students on the partner’s payroll which significantly cuts down on the administrative tasks they must manage to hire student workers, especially those that work for only one semester. Nonprofits complete an application, which generates a Federal Work Study contract, which they only must sign once. After that, the organization is considered a nonprofit partner of the university and becomes eligible to “hire” students through the Work Study program. Many students stay with the same nonprofit for several semesters while others will explore working at another nonprofit or will use the experience they have gained to seek a position in a corporate setting. Nonprofits can continue to hire students indefinitely if they let the Work Study office know the names of the students they will be hiring each semester.
As the funding from the Haile Foundation grant began to run out, President Pinto had put into motion his plan for making a co-op-like experience available to all students at UC and not just students from selected degree programs. As such, he sent out a request for what he called Co-op 2.0 proposals.
Having piloted this program on a small scale, approximately 150 students, my partner in the Work Study office and I wondered if it would be possible to support all Work Study-eligible students in the same way, so we submitted a proposal. Unbeknown to me at the time, one of my colleagues, Dr. Michael Sharp, Director of UC’s Service-Learning program, wrote a very similar proposal that he called the Service-Learning Co-op program.
Several months went by while we waited to see which proposals would be selected by President Pinto and then suddenly[SE(1] [HP(2] , Work Study and Service-Learning were working together to pilot the Service-Learning Co-op program at UC . Our funding streams included Work Study, Co-op 2.0 funds, and a small portion of a grant we received from the Department of Labor that would reimburse nonprofits for paying our students to complete 80-hour tech-based projects for their organizations. “Tech-based” could include any of the following and more: create and update websites, develop and maintain social media and digital marketing plans/campaigns, clean and tweak databases, develop and implement on-line learning modules, develop applications, conduct and interpret research using business analytics, develop new processes in Salesforce, etc.
As is often the case with new initiatives, there were many pieces of the program that had to be developed and finalized after our proposal was approved. During the summer of 2019, Michael and I were given the charge to promote the program with limited understanding of the funding or how the program would work operationally. We were excited to initiate conversations with our nonprofit community. A peek behind the scenes will show a rocky start to UC’s Service-Learning Co-op program as Michael and I tried to understand the funding and its limitations and requirements, while also creating the processes by which employers could connect with students and with the funding. Since we had several different funding streams supporting the program, we had developed a series of steps for each funding model that we could send to interested nonprofits after we determined the one(s) that would best meet their needs. We had finally developed a well-oiled machine and had gained enough interest in the program to ensure that we would be able to meet our goal of 55 student hires by June 30 when the pandemic hit in March 2020. In a matter of days, most of the nonprofits who had expressed an interest in hiring a student decided to postpone hiring until a later time.
With the success of the Service-Learning Co-op program hanging in the balance and only three months to recoup our losses, we had to roll up our sleeves and redouble our efforts to find other nonprofits who had the capacity to move forward during an unprecedented time and also provide a remote work experience since that was UC’s requirement at the time. I believe I reached out to every nonprofit I could think of to start a conversation and promote this valuable program.
As time went by and people saw that working from home was not going to be as temporary as they originally thought, some of the nonprofits that had pulled out became more willing to consider hiring a student. Without the distractions of working in an office, many nonprofits were suddenly able to take the time to dust off projects they’d been postponing for years and consider how students might be able to help. Students were also called upon to assist with nonprofits’ websites and online resources since that was suddenly the only way to communicate with their donors and the people they served.
Once our nonprofit partners had an opportunity to experience the value our students could bring to their organizations, the Service-Learning Co-op program blew up. Our goal of creating 55 Service- Learning positions was exceeded by more than 50% in the first year. What at first became a struggle to create 55 positions became a struggle to maintain the balance between the demand for our students and that is available to support them. Having doubled our goal the first year, the possibility of having our funding cut or drastically reduced was, and still is, a very real concern.
The good news is that since the spring of 2020, approximately 100 nonprofits have received critical support during an impossibly challenging year, and 350 students have gained valuable skills and earned money to support their college expenses through the Service-Learning Co-op program. Many of these students were re-hired for one or more consecutive semesters, sometimes using our funding support and in cases where we could no longer provide it, several nonprofits chose to pay out of pocket if they could afford to do so.
The demand for student workers continues as we have returned to in person classes and work , especially since many partners have seen what our students can do. Our partners are finding value in the work UC Service-Learning students can provide to their daily operations. Listen to our partner testimonials such as the interview with Lydia Bailey, St. Vincent de Paul Charitable Pharmacy Operations Manager.
To continue this amazing program, we need to make it sustainable, which means seeking stable funding support. Our proof of concept has demonstrated that the Service-Learning working relationship works for both students and partners. Recently, a couple donors have expressed an interest in supporting the program, and so the idea of private funding has emerged as one option.. Additionally several nonprofits have seen the value of working with our students and have been able to identify funds to continue the position when our funding could no longer cover all the student’s salary. For those organizations who could not afford to fund a paid position, , some of our students have stepped up to volunteer instead.
Creating a sustainable model for the Service-Learning Co-op program is something that Michael and I are continuing to ponder. We have even discussed creating a class for students to generate and flesh out ideas for a sustainable program so that we can continue to connect students to meaningful work experiences while supporting our nonprofit partners and the communities they serve.
Paula Harper is a former mental health therapist with a passion for supporting students on their career journey. As the Manager of Partnership Development for the Service-Learning Co-op Program at the University of Cincinnati, Paula enjoys creating partnerships with nonprofits and government entities that will provide a meaningful work experience and enable students to practice and develop their professional skills, while also building their confidence. It is particularly rewarding to be able to connect nonprofits with talented students who can help them meet their mission goals, and to connect students with nonprofits for which they feel a unique passion. She lives in Northern Kentucky with her husband, grandson, and her two elderly Bichons.