UT: An Educational Experience

In the summer of 2008, while working in Liberal Arts Career Services at The University of Texas at Austin, it occurred to me how poorly prepared most college students are for the 21st century world of work.

I’d learned that many students were interested in both nonprofit work and consulting, wanting to use their minds to solve socially important business problems. So I created a course called Nonprofit Consulting: An Internship Alternative and launched it as a 15-week elective for liberal arts seniors that Fall.

This course was very different from anything my students had previously experienced. After applying for one of the limited slots, I interviewed each prospective participant to outline the expectations and deliverables on both sides. There would be no dropping out mid-course, no showing up late to class, in fact there wouldn’t be “class” at all – we’d be operating from day one as a consulting firm with four nonprofit clients.

Everyone was expected to act professionally, think creatively, and work successfully in a team environment. For my part, I’d share insights from my many years as an international consultant, communicator, and coach to prepare and expose these young people to meaningful work. That way they would gain valuable real-world experience that could be useful to prospective employers.

I asked each of the four participating nonprofits to present a strategically important project that nevertheless remained on their “to do” list because they didn’t have the time, person-power or budget to execute on it. My team of new consultants (we no longer used the word “students”) then individually chose which project they wished to work on. I’d already exposed the group to the Gallup StrengthsFinder™ tool so each member was familiar with their top five strengths and had a sense of the value they were bringing to their team.

Drawing on my love of teaching and leading, I worked with the teams to help them find the innovative ideas that would fulfill their clients’ strategic needs as well as to write a concluding report. I also clued them into practical matters such as how best to communicate this experience to prospective employers.

Nothing gives me greater pleasure and pride than recalling the remarkable results of this experimental course. Three out of the four teams were invited to present their findings to their clients’ boards, offering these young people additional valuable communication experience. [Client #4 had been a challenge from the outset and, while disappointing for that team, gave them a real-world taste of working with difficult people.] Many of the students walked into prestigious positions with their chosen employers; all were changed in profound ways.

Post-course feedback included:

This course truly changed my life… Liz has equipped me with the skills to take on the world.

This course was BY LEAGUES one of my most valuable experiences in my time at UT. (Liz) is one of the best teachers and mentors that I’ve ever had.

You’ve taught me so much and I’ll use what I’ve learned for the rest of my life!

I am going to miss this class and your sincere efforts to bring out the best in all of us.

When people ask me what I’m passionate about and why I do what I do, I think back to the difference I helped make to these young people’s confidence and abilities. It’s my gift to see people as better and more able than they believe themselves to be, and love nothing more than using writing-related projects as a means of discovering how anyone can learn to be more indispensable, relevant, and innovative.

I bring that same blend of passion and sense of purpose to my work with individuals and organizations, insourcing what I already know exists, but which needs the right kind of motivating activities to draw out.

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