Gathered around a laptop one afternoon seniors Elizabeth Adams, Adam Sharpe and Erick Cordova talked excitedly – not about video games or social media trending topics, but about a UNT class project that has given them an edge in their future careers.
"I've been building this foundation throughout my UNT experience," says Adams, noting that this project has given her the type of hands-on experience she needs. "It gives me a leg up on the competition because I have this on my résumé. I can talk about what we did well and what I realize I need to improve going forward, and what I learned from the experience."
Working with a Dallas-based company to create real solutions to questions was valuable not only for the company, but for the students, Sharpe says.
"It's been useful being presented a problem that's not as clear-cut as what you encounter in the classroom," Sharpe says.
Adams agrees: "It's the academic and real world joined in this perfect mesh to provide a preparation for what I want to do after graduation."
These students are not the only ones looking for ways to enhance their classwork at UNT by adding skills through hands-on experiences. Many students already do so with internships, service learning courses, volunteer work, classroom research and projects, study abroad, student employment and with co-curricular activities that relate back to their course of study.
But a new program at the university – UNT Career Connect – will work to ensure that these opportunities will be available to a broader student population.
"UNT Career Connect strengthens UNT's commitment to educational excellence by allowing students to gain valuable career experience while learning," President Neal Smatresk says. "This is already done in a number of ways across the university. This plan will expand what is already being done to ensure that every student has the opportunity to connect their valuable learning experiences. The plan gives students more opportunities to interact with the surrounding community, solve problems and strengthen their teamwork and communication skills."
Learning by volunteering
UNT senior Julius Knolley is another example of a student getting hands-on experience while volunteering. During the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, Knolley, who is vice president for the UNT Black Student Union, helped repaint the Serve Denton's Wheeler House for homeless families. But the project was more than just a good-will opportunity.
"When I graduate, I want to work in community development and environmental policy, doing what I can to help others," the anthropology major says. "Often, people graduate with a degree, but don't know what exactly they can do. Work like this here at Serve Denton shows how I can use my degree to help others."
While working with both public and private sector community partners, students will expand on skills learned during classwork and bring their outside knowledge back into the classroom to share with fellow students, complementing the lessons taught by faculty, bringing their learning experience full circle, says Provost Finley Graves.
This work with community partners gives students hands-on and "real-world" learning, says Vice President of Student Affairs Elizabeth With.
"Enhancing learning outside the classroom with these activities gives students experience in their career field and helps them better focus on their goals," says With. "They will participate in networking opportunities and leave UNT with a resume that includes the skills that employers want."
UNT Career Connect will use an e-portfolio system so students can collect, connect and showcase what they've learned from their curricular and co-curricular experiences that build these skills.
UNT developed this plan as part of its 10-year reaffirmation of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and School Commission on Colleges. The accrediting body asks that each university develop a Quality Enhancement Plan to address an institutional need that focuses on learning outcomes and aligns with the university's mission. UNT Career Connect is the university's Quality Enhancement Plan. It complements UNT's Strategic Plan, the university's Core Values and the state's 60x30TX strategic plan for higher education.
"This offers students greater opportunities for learning and supports the various ways our faculty and staff teach students. Learning doesn't stop at the end of the class time and UNT Career Connect shows the importance of integrating these types of experiences throughout one's college career," says UNT Career Connect Director Mike Simmons.
Partnering with community
UNT has committed resources to this plan to make it possible for all undergraduate students who wish to participate to have that chance. But the benefits of the plan will extend to many more people.
"The improvements that will be seen from UNT Career Connect don't stop at the boundaries of the university," Smatresk says. "UNT Career Connect offers many benefits for our community partners. In these collaborations, our students will bring new ideas to help solve problems and invigorate the community."
That is welcome news for Serve Denton's Executive Director Patrick Smith, who has partnered with students in UNT's College of Public Affairs and Community Service and College of Visual Arts and Design.
"I believe very strongly in the power of using real world experiences to shape learning," Smith says. "These activities help students build their portfolio so that when they graduate, they can show the expertise they've developed while in college. Of course, there is an added benefit for my organization because the students have helped Serve Denton achieve many of our goals."