New UI course turns part-time work into career-building opportunity
Wednesday, November 6, 2013

When Josh Frahm talks with his students about work, he’s not shy about sharing his own story, warts and all.

“Coming out of college, I wasn’t prepared for some of the basics, like selling my experience,” he says. “I harp on students to get involved in class, on campus, on the job, building their background and learning how to talk about it.”

Frahm teaches STEP (Student to Employed Professional), a brand-new, for-credit course aimed at University of Iowa students who are starting out in part-time jobs during school. The goal: make a college job the foundation for a career.

“This class is really all about the transition from student to employee,” Frahm says. “Our students do this every day when they move from class to work, but the skills involved really become critical once they graduate.”

Student success focus

STEP advances the university’s overarching focus on student success, driven by the fact that students who work part time are more likely to achieve. Organizers want to make college jobs even more meaningful.

“Working during college offers more than just a paycheck,” says Cindy Seyfer, director of student employment and senior associate director in the UI Office of Student Financial Aid. “It can be a ticket to future success.”

Seyfer and colleagues in the Pomerantz Career Center, the Division of Student Life, and Human Resources Learning and Development developed a grant proposal aimed at supporting working students. Financial Aid received funding from the Office of the Provost to launch the project.

Originally conceived as a certificate program, STEP grew into an 11-week, one-credit course. This fall, about 46 students are enrolled in three sections—when the first two classes filled in just 24 hours, organizers quickly added a third.

The course is offered through Career Center Programs. To register, students much be employed on campus and contact Frahm for the course-registration permission code.

Other UI initiatives tackle similar goals. The award-winning IOWA GROW (for guided reflection on work) helps student employees and supervisors trace connections between learning in the classroom and on the job. The Pomerantz Career Center offers dozens of tools for students to plan careers and build professional skills.

STEP provides a new way for students to assess their goals and develop plans among a small group of peers.

Personal action plans

Frahm, a 2004 UI marketing graduate originally from Tripoli, Iowa, was hired last March to develop the program. He devised a curriculum in just two months and enrolled 11 students during a summer pilot.

“Until taking the class, I didn’t really understand how many different experiences I’d had, or what the way I’d handled those experiences said about my skills,” says Rylee Coteus, a senior speech and hearing science major who took part in the summer pilot.

Coteus has worked with Student Disability Services since 2010, turning classroom texts into electronic files that can be read aloud by computers. She’s also a tour guide with the Office of Admissions.

“I’m planning on graduate school, so I wanted to come out of the class with a polished resume,” she says. “But now I also feel like I have a response to any question an employer might ask me.”

This fall, Frahm expanded the class to cover all the career development basics and use students’ current on-the-job experience as a platform for future plans.

“We start with assessment, asking students to understand themselves and their skills,” Frahm says. “What kind of employer do they want to work for? What sort of job will motivate them?”

Additional sessions address networking face-to-face and via social media, the concept of personal branding, job search strategies, resumes and interviews, and more. There’s a framework for the class, but Frahm keeps meetings flexible.

“We tend to just go with the discussion,” he says. “For that reason, we like to keep the class small.”

Final project is a “personal action plan” that challenges each student to chart her or his next steps toward a career.

“Here again, students have a lot of freedom,” Frahm says. “Plans vary depending on where students are at in their education, or what they want to accomplish. But the exercise is valuable at any age, in any major.”

Insight and confidence

STEP is predicated on the idea that just about any work experience is a chance to build marketable skills, but some campus jobs grow into true careers. Seyfer has seen plenty of student employees in her office go on to work in financial aid, college admissions, or other higher education fields.

She also notes that students are a vital part of the university’s workforce.

“We hope to see students become more invested and engaged,” she says. “For the university and for departments across campus, there’s a lot to be gained.”

For students like Coteus, STEP boosts both insight and confidence.

“It’s been such an eye-opening experience,” she says. “I understand where potential employers might want me to come in, but I also see that I’ve already been there.”