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Learning by Doing: The Wagner Plan from Classroom to Career
In September 2009, faculty, students, staff, and administrators at Wagner College gathered for a two-day symposium to revisit the Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts. Implemented in 1998, The Wagner Plan provides a curricular and campuswide framework for all institutional activities focusing on Wagner’s core mission and values. Since its inception, the Wagner Plan has grown and evolved, so campus leaders designed the 2009 symposium to review its development. Recognizing the need to include a wide variety of stakeholders in the conversation, the symposium brought together faculty, students, staff, and administrators to discuss the plan’s past and to begin developing its next iteration: The Wagner Plan 2.0.
One of the insights that came out of the symposium was a recognition of how well faculty and staff have been working together to provide true support and mentoring for our students’ career development. As a result of the symposium, the Career Development staff began to explore how the Wagner Plan reinforces our objectives of preparing students for their eventual careers, what we can learn from our students in order to improve our services and, given current economic conditions, what new efforts will be required to enhance our students’ ability to discover their life’s work.
Located on Staten Island, Wagner College’s proximity to Manhattan has been a long-standing attraction for students interested in research, community service, and internships. Capitalizing on location and placing a premium on “Learning by Doing,” the Wagner Plan integrates several high-impact educational practices into a robust curriculum: learning communities for first-year, intermediate, and senior students; experiential learning in various forms, including service learning, practica, internships, and community based research; and reflective tutorials (RFTs), where students use structured reflection to amplify and connect the learning experience.
The Wagner Plan provides students with a solid foundation for becoming lifelong learners and active members of their professional communities. First-year students participate in a First-Year Learning Community, a set of three courses linked by a common theme. Faculty incorporate a thirty-hour experiential learning component that engages the students in the local community through research and service or field trips, and orients students to New York City’s many resources. The Intermediate Learning Community (ILC) encourages students to make connections between different disciplines. Two courses are combined to challenge students to increase their breadth of understanding across disciplines. These courses allow students to further understand that a career path may not be linked with a specific major or discipline. The Senior Learning Community integrates academic development and career preparation through a capstone course in the major and a second course, a reflective tutorial (RFT) that integrates a 100-hour field-based experience in the discipline. For seniors, the offices of Alumni Relations, Career Development, and Residence Education have created the Bridges Program, which provides students with programming aimed at making connections between alumni and employers.
Learning from Our Students: NSSE Data
During spring 2009, Wagner participated in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). Findings of four survey items clearly demonstrate the effectiveness of the Wagner Plan for career preparation (the figures below indicate the total percentage responding “very much” and “quite a bit”):
- Wagner College seniors participate in internships, practica, and research at significantly greater rates (96 percent) than their peers at comprehensive master’s institutions (76 percent), and all participating institutions (76 percent).
- Wagner College seniors report that their experiences contributed to their knowledge, skills, and ability to contribute to the welfare of their community in similar measure (66 percent) to their peers at comprehensive masters institutions (52 percent), and significantly greater than peers at all participating institutions (48 percent).
- Wagner College seniors have conversations about their career aspirations with faculty members or other advisers in significantly greater numbers (61 percent) than their peers at comprehensive master’s institutions (45 percent), and all participating institutions (42 percent).
- Wagner College seniors perceive that they acquire job or work-related knowledge or skills in similar measure (69 percent) to their peers at comprehensive masters institutions (77 percent), and all participating institutions (73 percent).
After reviewing the data, we sought input from faculty and administrators in order to identify and understand the specific factors that led to these impressive results.
Participation in Internships, Practica, and Research
The design of the Wagner Plan ensures that students do not just participate in, but also recognize the benefits of, experiential learning opportunities. Wagner students may elect to take an internship for one unit (105 hours), two units, (210 hours) or solely for experience. In some majors, the number of hours students spend in the experiential component of the first-year (30 hours) and senior learning communities (100 hours) frequently exceeds the required minimum, which suggests that students not only recognize but also seek out the opportunities that the Wagner Plan has integrated into curricular and cocurricular life. One such major is arts administration.
Nationally, there are fewer than twenty-five undergraduate degree programs in arts administration that prepare students for leadership and management in arts-related organizations. Students pursuing this degree are required to complete a capstone course and a full-time internship. Associate professor Todd Alan Price explains that “by working full-time, students undertake important projects that could not be handled in a part-time position. The students gain a realistic perspective on what a position in this industry might entail. Since the arts administration curriculum is based on real-world applications as a teaching method, this internship has been well received by students and the arts community.”
Simultaneously, the arts administration capstone seminar “provides the student the opportunity to reflect on his or her internship experience through a variety of techniques. Students meet regularly in small groups to discuss relevant issues in the workplace. Faculty members then meet with small groups and lead discussion[s] to analyze student experiences for all to reflect and comment. The classroom is a safe opportunity for students to discuss what they are experiencing and learning at their sites. Any business practice not understood or personnel issues facing students can be a source of great classroom learning for all involved.”
Price observes, “In exit surveys with our students, the internship is often mentioned as the single most meaningful experience in their college careers. Since students in the full-time internship report being treated as regular full-time employees, they experience great satisfaction in their workplace. The poise and confidence that students gain from this opportunity is often evident in the final assignment in class: an oral presentation detailing personal and professional insights students have gained. When evaluating this presentation, faculty members often comment that the transformative experience of the internship is clear to all.”
In addition to internship opportunities within easy reach of campus, students—especially those with limited free time or financial means—can benefit from internships on campus. For some, a campus internship may be the student’s first exposure to careers in higher education, including those in admissions, alumni relations, development, student life, information technology, and career development. For students in professional programs such as accounting, an internal internship in the business office can lead to future employment. John Carrescia, an alumnus, returned to Wagner after working four years at KPMG, one of the “big four” accounting firms. In addition to serving as the Wagner controller, he taught undergraduate accounting and auditing and advanced auditing for the MBA program. Students from the accounting program intern in the Wagner business office. Reflecting on this approach to offering students real-world experience, he says: “I [select] three or four of our top accounting students each year and they work in the middle of the action in the business office. This experience allows the student to see the total picture of the financial operations of the college, and they get hands-on experience on the internal accounting process.”
During the internship, Carrescia coordinates office assignments with coursework so that students can apply their new knowledge in the workplace: “I often try and link the textbook materials to some of the tasks that I give them so they can apply what they learn. For example, the students vendor and process accounts payable checks, they assist with bank reconciliations, I ask them to do analysis similar to the work they will do when they complete their accounting degree.”
Ultimately, the work of the internship leads to increasing responsibility: “Each year the college is audited by KPMG, and I allow my student workers to assist with the audit preparation. They actually get to see first-hand what the auditors do, which is what they will be doing, and they get to see both sides of the process.”
Students’ lives have been directly affected by this program; for the past four years, it has resulted in jobs after graduation. Carrescia explains, “The KPMG manager has been so impressed with my interns, that each year one or more of them have been given interviews and awarded full-time positions upon graduation. Currently, there are six of my former interns working for KPMG and they got their foot in the door through their internship in the business office.”
In addition to internships in corporate and nonprofit settings, the federal government provides another avenue for career exploration. Call to Serve, a program of the Partnership for Public Service, seeks to inform, inspire, and involve college students and alumni with the federal government. In addition to webinars and workshops, Call to Serve can assist campuses with making connections to federal employees. Our office placed an announcement in Wagner Magazine inviting alumni, parents, and friends with experience in the federal government to assist us in locating opportunities for our students. Two alumni from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Dennis Guilfoyle, a pharmaceutical microbiologist, and Kent Hermann, the assistant to the director of Northeast Regional Laboratory (NRL), responded to our request. As a result, Nimrod Phillipe, a current Wagner microbiology major, was hired for summer employment at the NRL in Queens, NY. Phillipe learned about this opportunity through a presentation on the FDA by Guilfoyle. As Phillipe recounted:
There were several Wagner alumni at the lab and they were all welcoming and surprised that I commuted from Wagner to Queens each day. They were supportive, helpful and it was fun working alongside them because we tended to have conversations about Wagner then and now, like what teachers are still teaching, the new residence hall, policies and how Wagner courses like learning communities functioned. An additional benefit of having students intern with alumni is that they are often able to bridge the alumni’s experience with the current academic and cocurricular activities. Alumni, in turn, test and refine students’ academic knowledge in meaningful ways.
In a piece for Liberal Education, Debra Humphreys reports, “Only 10 percent of BA degree holders currently work in the nonprofit sector and only 20 percent work in the public sector.....Economists warn that future shortages of workers will be proportionally larger in the public and nonprofit sectors (U.S. Census Bureau). We can and should encourage students in government and nonprofit organizations” (Humphreys 2009). As a comprehensive master’s college combining the liberal arts with selected professional programs, Wagner actively promotes internships and practica in all sectors of the economy.
Contribution of Experiences to Knowledge, Skills, and Ability to Contribute to the Welfare of their Communities
Through the Senior Learning Community, students engage in one hundred hours of field-based experience as part of the course requirements. Business administration majors often complete a practicum at a for-profit corporation to fulfill this course requirement; however, through Wagner’s Civic Innovations program, each semester one of the senior learning communities in the business administration department is linked with a local community organization. Students engage in work that has a direct positive effect on the local community.
Mary Lo Re, associate professor and chair of the business administration department, is one of the faculty members teaching in a senior learning community that is tied to the Civic Innovations program. Lo Re reflects, “...that any experiential learning endeavor not only enhances student learning but also provides students with a foundation for active social and civic involvement and instill[s] in them a sense of responsibility.”
In a survey assessing the St. George Action Plan, Lo Re asked students to explain how the experience deepened the student’s knowledge of business. One student responded: “I learned how important it is to be able to listen to what people are saying and the importance of getting out there and getting to know the community around you.”
Through the Civic Innovations program, Frank DeSimone, an assistant professor who directs the senior learning communities in business administration, teaches a section of marketing in which students engage in a team assignment involving the YMCA. DeSimone sees the sometimes unintended consequences that result from students’ inexperience as teachable moments: “One group of students learned the hard way that the fundraising prize they chose for their assignment has to be meaningful to the target audience. While they sold raffle [tickets] to raise funds for the YMCA at a Wagner theatre presentation, they did not earn enough in donations to pay for a free membership to the YMCA.”
In an effort to contribute to their community these students learned a valuable lesson in marketing and working in the community: “To select their target audience more carefully and to make sure the raffle prize is attractive to the target audience selected.”
Students in a number of disciplines engage in community-based practicum experiences. Lori Weintrob, associate professor and chair of the history department, notes, “As we increase civic engagement, an increasing number of students are going into public service fields, including public history, not-for-profit organizations, and political work after doing their internships or placements in these fields.” Weintrob cites the example of alumni Vincent Lenza, a history student who, in the late 1990s, participated in a practicum as a precursor to the Wagner Plan. He completed his experience at the Staten Island Museum, an extended two-year internship. His experiences encouraged him to seek further engagement in the community through a full-time position with the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation where he assisted in the launch of Staten Island’s first international film festival. Lenza has since founded the Staten Island Not For Profit Association (SINFPA), a consortium of one hundred organizations, of which he now is president.
Like nonprofits, newspapers are crucial to a community. In addition to developing their knowledge and skills, students interning at the Staten Island Advance gain new perspectives about the community. Students work with Wagner alumnus Claire Regan, associate managing editor of the paper and associate professor of journalism, who notes that
“an internship...at the Advance...teaches students to be curious about the world around them and gently pushes them out of their comfort zone. An assignment at the Advance, for example, could send an intern to the St. George Ferry terminal in search of comments from commuters about an impending fare hike. Or to Port Richmond for reaction to a bias incident. Or to Rosebank to interview an eight-year-old Iraqi boy undergoing treatment after losing an arm and a leg to a roadside bomb. Students explore neighborhoods they’ve never been to, approach people they’ve never met, learn about topics and issues that never occurred to them.”
Reflecting on her involvement in the internship program, Regan states, “In my dual role as faculty member and onsite supervisor, my goal is to mentor and empower. I look out of my office and see a dozen success stories—interns who became full-time hires. In the classroom, it’s exciting to watch self confidence blossom as students explore a new role and discover they can thrive in the real world.”
Conversations with Faculty and Others about Career Aspirations
As we spoke with faculty, it became clear that they are instrumental in referring students to the resources of the career development staff. Many faculty members provide opportunities for students to work directly with career development staff through class visits and by assigning their classes to attend career development programs. Additionally, faculty seek information from and invite career development staff to department meetings, learning community meetings and individual consultations. During the department chairs’ spring meeting, Provost Devorah Lieberman invited career development staff to facilitate a conversation regarding internships.
Within the Senior Learning Community, faculty also used the practicum experience to assist students in career exploration, but recognized the resources available beyond the classroom. As one senior faculty member shared “I chose the career which had the most interest and meaning for me. If a student wants to prepare for an academic career, I can help. Beyond that, I send them to you when they express interest in careers with which I am unfamiliar.” Faculty realize that they are subject matter experts in specific disciplines and supplement their advice by referring to the career development office’s resources. Faculty members’ willingness to work collaboratively with college staff is evident in their regular promotion of and consultation with the Center for Academic and Career Development.
We believe what is most important for students is a faculty member’s desire to support and challenge students during the exploration of careers. Jeff Kraus, associate professor of government and politics and associate vice provost, worked closely with Wagner alumnus Laura Graham. A native Staten Islander, Laura attended Wagner on a softball scholarship. Kraus recalls that as a student she was
“very bright but also very quiet. She did her work. You could see from her papers and exams that she was very bright. That’s why I encouraged her to apply for the internship [at the White House]. When she didn’t get it on her first application and was ready to give up, I told her ‘NO! NO! Apply again! A lot of people get it on the second application.’”
In the spring semester of her senior year, Laura left Wagner to intern at the White House. Following the internship she was hired by the Clinton administration; she has gone on to become the COO of the William J. Clinton Foundation and chief of staff to President Clinton. Kraus’s ongoing encouragement played a key role in her path to success.
Students’ perception that they acquire job or work-related knowledge
Creating internships that are meaningful to both the student and hosting agency will become more imperative in this economy. Internships are no longer a “make work” proposition. According to a September 13, 2010, article in the Wall Street Journal, increasing numbers of employers are utilizing internships as auditions for future employment. While this practice has been standard in fields with summer associate programs such accounting, it is becoming prevalent in other industries. An internship can provide an employer with a semester’s worth of evidence of a student’s ability to make the transition from intern to full-time employee.
While many of our students demonstrate an ability to identify job and work-related knowledge, we know that the current economic conditions are changing both the knowledge and skills required of our graduates. As Phil Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, and Larry Hanneman, director of Engineering Career Services at Iowa State University, warn, “The starting job of five or ten years ago no longer exists” (2010, 5). They also say: “Even though the new employee may bring an array of skills into the workplace...success in this first position was predicated on a few key skills: quickly converting college-acquired learning to the workplace, writing effectively, working effectively in a team, acquiring new knowledge as quickly as possible to carry out job functions, being able to grasp the realities of the workplace (how the organization explicitly and implicitly operates, often referred to as organizational socialization) and demonstrating initiative” (2010, 4).
Following his summer employment, Nimrod Phillipe is currently volunteering at the FDA during the academic year. Speaking of his summer experience, he says,
As a super lab, there were interns from all over the city and beyond. It was great networking not just working with students from different schools and locations, but different majors as well since we would often discuss class and work we were doing in our individual labs. As employees, we initially watched the researchers as they did their work. We were then allowed to work with them and eventually we were assigned tasks to complete individually. The microbiological knowledge used was very specific, which was a huge contrast to the general information we learn in class. I learned what it takes to be a researcher and about health related issues impacting the United States and the world.
For Phillipe, this out-of-the-classroom experience has been instrumental in helping him develop his work-related knowledge.
Recognizing that the workplaces our students will inhabit will be drastically different from our own has prompted some new alliances on campus. After sharing the NSSE data with the Office of Financial Aid, our offices agreed to collaboratively redesign and a launch a new College Work Study program in fall 2011.
The goal will be to intentionally use CWS to develop work-related knowledge and skills. We know that revamping the CWS application process in order to prepare students for internships and future employment will require the involvement of our entire campus and believe it is an opportunity to educate Wagner community stakeholders about the workplaces our students will be entering.
Comprehensive Programs from Classroom to Career
The experiences of our faculty and students provide powerful testimony to the contribution of internships, practica, and research to the development of these learning outcomes. In turn, these learning outcomes foster the development of students’ emerging professional identities. Students learn to assess organizational cultures, develop a more nuanced understanding of their intended professions, network with peers and supervisors, and gain clarity on their career aspirations. As faculty and staff, we see students’ heightened confidence as they successfully engage within diverse communities and expand their sense of self, as well as what they are capable of contributing.
We would like to thank the following colleagues at Wagner College for their contributions to this article: John Carrescia, Dorothy Davison, Frank DeSimone, Jeffrey Kraus, Mary Lo Re, Anne Goodsell-Love, Nimrod Phillipe, Claire Regan, Nicholas Richardson, Lori Weintrob, and Mary Zanfini.
Cheney, Alexandra. 2010. “Firms Assess Young Interns’ Potential.” The Wall Street Journal. September 13. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704206804575467914217160480.html
Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. 2009. National Survey of Student Engagement- Institutional Report, August.
Hanneman, Larry, and Phil Gardner. 2010. CERI Research Brief 1-2010. Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Collegiate Employment Research Institute Collegiate Employment Research Institute.
Humphreys, Debra. 2009. “College Outcomes for Work, Life, and Citizenship: Can We Really Do It All?” Liberal Education 94 (1): 14–21
U.S. News and World Report. 2011 Edition Best Colleges. August 21.
Wagner College. 2009. Wagner Plan 2.0, Proceedings of the Wagner College Campus Symposium. September 17–18.
———. 2010. Wagner College Undergraduate and Graduate Bulletin. 11–13.
Tulin Aldas is the assistant director of career development; Victoria Crispo is the assistant director of career development; Natalie Johnson is the director of career development; Todd Alan Price is an associate professor—all of Wagner College.