Chapter 3: Bringing Corporate America to Your Campus
Posted on October 28, 2020Download as a PDF
Download as a PDF
Innovation—the ability to anticipate and respond to changes taking place on our campus and throughout this 21st-century world—sets leading colleges and universities apart from the thousands of other institutions in the higher education marketplace. Innovation on our campuses can take many forms. Often it means adapting an existing strategy to emerging demands.
That was the case nine years ago when Eastern Connecticut State University partnered with a leading, Connecticut-based healthcare corporation to create an on-campus internship program we call the “Work Hub.” Now in its tenth year, the program focuses on teaching technology skills in a leading occupational sector while paying Eastern students to perform essential tasks for a corporate sponsor without leaving campus.
How did the Work Hub begin? In 2011, we learned that a major healthcare company in Connecticut wanted to address two human resources challenges it was facing: their workforce was not sufficiently diverse, and the corporation was not satisfied with employee retention—the “fit” wasn’t what it needed to be. These two issues aligned well with two needs we had on our campus; we wanted to provide more authentic work experiences to our students, and we needed to ensure access to these applied learning opportunities for minorities and first-generation students.
We wanted to provide more authentic work experiences to our students, and we needed to ensure access to these applied learning opportunities for minorities and first-generation students.
Each year, almost 1,000 Eastern students, most of them in their senior year of college, take some form of internship, paid or for credit. However, given Eastern’s location in a small rural town in northeastern Connecticut, most internship placements require students to travel to population centers such as Hartford, New Haven, or New London. For many of our students, especially first-generation students, minorities, and students from low-income families, the lack of transportation, the time commitments of on-campus jobs, and other obligations make the prospects of acquiring and managing an off-campus internship placement a major challenge. The Work Hub concept has been an ideal way for the University to meet the training needs of a major international corporation while preparing students for STEM careers and serving the educational needs of students from diverse backgrounds.
We began the program in fall 2011 with a small group of students mentored by an employee of our Work Hub client. A dedicated facility was repurposed from several meeting rooms in one of our older dormitories. Our corporate partners paid for and installed a secure local area network to provide students with valuable technology and team-building skills while protecting the healthcare company’s data and the privacy of its patients.
Seven students began the program, working up to 25 hours a week and earning $20 an hour. To become an intern in the Work Hub, students must complete an on-campus interview with company representatives before being selected to join the program. Interns can explore various positions in the company to find roles that best match their skill set and career goals.
The ability to earn money, learn skills that will transfer to a future job, and avoid the cost and time investment of an off-campus internship has proved invaluable to the students participating in the program.
Over time, the ability to earn money, learn skills that will transfer to a future job, and avoid the cost and time investment of an off-campus internship has proved invaluable to the students participating in the program. In the process, interns have learned technology skills ranging from website architecture and maintenance to database management, analytics, network security, Java applications, and client management. Important “soft skills,” such as teamwork and problem-solving, are also taught on the job in a supervised setting. Many interns complete their last semester at Eastern having already been accepted for full-time positions with our corporate partner after graduation. The Work Hub also gives our sponsors several years to determine if a student intern is a good match for their corporate culture and has the requisite skills.
The program has had an impressive record of growth and innovation over its nine years. In 2014, we added an additional stream of students with an agreement with five area community colleges that provided scholarships for students seeking STEM-related careers. These students were also awarded entry into the Work Hub. Earnings from the internship along with their scholarships cover part of the cost of tuition, room, and board. Students complete their Eastern credits over the course of five semesters or less, meeting the requirements of a bachelor’s degree in computer science or business information systems.
In 2017, the Work Hub reached out again, offering a select group of students from Puerto Rico a “Career Fellowship” opportunity that gave them entry to the Computer Science and Business Information Systems majors while also providing paid Work Hub internships. The Career Fellowship includes Eastern faculty and corporate mentors, summer internships, and the potential of full-time employment after graduation. The program has a special emphasis on supporting the entry of young women into technology fields where women have been historically underrepresented.
The community college connection and the Career Fellowship for Puerto Rican students were natural expansions of the program, providing opportunities to minority and first-generation students while increasing the staffing pipeline to our Work Hub partner.
As the Work Hub has grown, it has also moved to larger accommodations. In 2014, the program moved to the science annex that houses our planetarium. In fall 2020, the program moved again, to 2,200 square feet of renovated, expanded space in the Wood Center, centrally located on campus. As has been the case since its inception, the Work Hub features an on-site trainer/mentor provided by our healthcare partners and a dedicated, secure local area network for their use. Furniture and other office amenities have been provided by the ECSU Foundation, Inc., our private fundraising arm, in support of students’ employability.
A majority of Work Hub interns have been offered full-time employment at the healthcare organization following graduation, and they have a 94% retention rate at the company.
Over time, more than 150 students have participated in the on-campus Work Hub, with an additional 180 summer internships offered at our corporate partner’s facilities. A majority of Work Hub interns have been offered full-time employment at the healthcare organization following graduation, and they have a 94% retention rate at the company.
As serious as our students are in their courses and in the on-campus Work Hub, they have found ways to have fun in the process. In April 2015, a “Code-a-thon” was organized by the Work Hub program and Eastern’s Video Game Development and Computer Science and Programming student clubs. Teams of six Eastern students pitted their skills against students from the University of Connecticut, using their programming skills to create a mobile-friendly website for the healthcare industry. Eastern’s students won the 12-hour competition and had a good time in the process. The event confirmed that the Work Hub is giving our students a competitive advantage for future careers in the healthcare and technology industries.
As Work Hub interns have graduated, those alumni now return to campus as successful employees of our healthcare client to share their stories with new Eastern students. In fall 2018, our corporate partners worked with our student chapter of the Association of Information Technology Professionals to host an information session for Eastern students, led by several alumni who had previously interned at the Work Hub. They described their employer’s goals, employee benefits, community engagement and the company’s hopes for the future. The alumni also detailed the types of technology jobs that Eastern graduates can pursue, including computer security, digital technology, data analytics, computer networking, and agile software development. In fall 2019, another group of Eastern alumni returned to campus to speak with students in the Business Information Systems major about their experience as Work Hub interns.
Just as Eastern alumni at career development information sessions note the range of skills and job specialties available at our corporate client and other companies, one of the Work Hub’s strengths has been the program’s flexibility in allowing student interns to experience a variety of tasks and jobs. “Donna,” a 2020 Business Information Systems graduate explains, “What’s amazing about the program is that it allows me to explore my interests through the option of changing my position so that I can see what I do and don’t like.”
Another intern—a first-generation student from North Carolina—is a computer science and mathematics major. “Jafet” noted how much his skill set and knowledge have grown since beginning the internship: “I’ve been working with cloud-computing software, which is new to me and something I’ve been learning from the start of the program. I’ve also learned to work better with a team. A great deal of what I do requires multiple people working toward a similar goal, so communication between us is crucial. It’s something that I have gotten better at, along with going out of my way and asking for help when I need it.”
Bringing corporate America to our campus has been a resounding success. The program continues to be a shining example of how colleges and universities can work together with the private sector to benefit students and our communities.
As Eastern and our Work Hub partner prepare for the future, bringing corporate America to our campus has been a resounding success. The program continues to be a shining example of how colleges and universities can work together with the private sector to benefit students and our communities. It is a winning proposition for all involved. We are supporting the workforce development efforts of our state while providing students with applied learning experiences that will enhance their marketability. Our corporate partners have been able to meet their diversity and retention goals. They have also made it clear they see the Work Hub as a permanent element in their workforce development strategy. The fact we can offer paid internships on campus, especially to first-generation students and other underrepresented student cohorts, is an added benefit of the program.
My counsel to other college and university presidents seeking ways to partner with private sector corporations is based on the positive experience we have gained during the nine years of managing our on-campus Work Hub. First of all, if you want to establish a working partnership with a corporate partner—whether for an internship program or some other opportunity—review your existing relationships. Who in your organization knows someone in a company? Our Work Hub started because our chief information officer had a relationship with a corporate executive. Build on the relationships you have. Just as importantly, make sure you maintain those connections over time. Having personal, active relationships with corporate partners is critical in dealing with red tape, time constraints, and other challenges that can impede progress.
Secondly, be willing to accommodate the needs of your corporate clients. Higher education, especially in the public sector, moves more slowly than the business community. We have our own protocols, habits, and processes. While maintaining your values and standards, find ways to meet your corporate partner’s requirements. In our case, it meant a dedicated space and a secure computer network. More importantly, we designed the Work Hub to address our healthcare partner’s need to improve the diversity and retention of their workforce.
Another important component of a successful corporate partnership is the willingness and ability to show initiative. Survival in the corporate world depends on staying ahead of the competition—successful businesses are constantly seeking innovation. Our nine-year history with one of the world’s leading healthcare companies has been marked by frequent modification and advancement. It has helped to maintain the Work Hub’s viability, strengthened the commitment of our corporate colleagues, and kept the program in the news.
Any initiatives we undertake on our campuses must be student-centered. We must always resist the temptation to engage in high-profile projects that, for whatever reason, are not designed with student learning in mind.
Finally, and this is the most important thing to remember, any initiatives we undertake on our campuses must be student-centered. We must always resist the temptation to engage in high-profile projects that, for whatever reason, are not designed with student learning in mind. In our case, our Work Hub partners have fully understood that students and their learning are central to the program’s success. On-site mentoring, a willingness to let students explore various jobs within the corporation—even as interns—and the generous salaries our student interns earn are just some examples of how students have remained at the center of the Work Hub.
As successful graduates who are working at our healthcare partner and in other technology businesses, Work Hub alumni daily confirm the strengths of the program. And as the executive vice president of our corporate partners recently noted in this glowing assessment of the program: “Talent continues to be an important differentiator in the health services business. Developing partnerships with universities for talented interns and skilled graduates is critical to the success of any global business. With the support and sponsorship of its president, Eastern Connecticut State University created a business–friendly model that enabled the creation of an on-campus innovation center for our corporation. This center has become the nucleus for a rich pipeline of interns and graduates who ultimately became employees of the firm. Through the process, these students have developed critical skills in digital, data, and analytics and have created products that were ultimately launched in our markets.”