A photo of three people sitting in front of a white board covered in words and illustrations.
Jonathan Fuller, assistant director for student leadership in the Division of Student Affairs; Katybeth Lee, Ph.D., executive director of Business Career Services and Student Engagement; and Edwin Funes-Sanchez, assistant director of Federal Work-Study in the Office of Financial Aid, are participating in the Work+Collective Institute, a national initiative focused on enhancing the on-campus student employee experience. (Contributed photo)

VCU joining national Work+Collective to enhance on-campus student employment

The initiative looks to maximize job-based experiential learning that propels post-college success.

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Virginia Commonwealth University is one of 12 institutions nationwide selected to participate in the Work+Collective, an initiative focused on enhancing the on-campus student employee experience.

The program, based at Arizona State University and supported by the Strada Education Foundation, helps participating universities – all public schools with similar settings and student demographics –  reimagine on-campus student roles so they become more meaningful learning opportunities. The VCU Work+ effort is being led by Samara Reynolds, executive director of VCU Career Services, with support from both a core leadership team and a larger campus team of key stakeholders.

Research shows that nationally student workers tend to have “gaps in their outcomes when they graduate, such as how much success they achieve, salary, satisfaction,” said Katybeth Lee, Ph.D., executive director of Business Career Services and Student Engagement. “VCU aims to close those gaps and provide student with the best possible experience as employees within our campus community.”

Student employment can be just as “formative, if not more so, as any experiential learning opportunity, like study abroad or internships, if care is taken to shape a meaningful learning environment,” said Jonathan Fuller, assistant director for student leadership in the Division of Student Affairs. “We hope to prepare students for success in the opportunities they seek after their time at VCU.”

The VCU Work+ team coordinated a Discovery Sprint experience in June that brought ASU’s Work+ team to Richmond. The team helped facilitate design-thinking exercises, cross-unit discussions and interviews with student employees and their supervisors to begin mapping out potential approaches to university wide change.

“This two-day, in-depth conversation and collaboration opportunity brought together campus professionals from a dozen different departments to really think big-picture about what VCU needs and what is possible,” Reynolds said.

In October, Fuller and Lee, along with Edwin Funes-Sanchez, assistant director of Federal Work-Study in the Office of Financial Aid, attended the Work+ summit on ASU’s campus as part of VCU’s Work+ Core Team.

“We learned how to challenge our thinking to develop sustainable change that could work well in our context,” Funes-Sanchez said. “I learned even more about how impactful work-based learning can be –  with direct correlations to stronger career outcomes, especially for paid opportunities – and how we have a tremendous opportunity to enhance experiences in house that will directly translate to the types of learning outcomes we prioritize at VCU.”

Long before Work+, VCU recognized the role student employment plays in a student’s academic and career success. “I believe this initiative will help further propel the strong foundation we were already building to help us reach our goals,” Funes-Sanchez said.

Institutions across the country are facing some of the same challenges as VCU. The summit at ASU gave colleagues across universities the opportunity to engage in conversation and “share with one another what is and isn’t working on their campuses,” he said.

One challenge identified at VCU is related to the differing experiences students have during their employment depending on their job and supervisor.

“We hope to streamline and unify the experience so that every working-learner position on campus can provide a consistently high-quality and transformative learning opportunity for each student,” Fuller said. “This way, no matter what position a student applies for, they can apply in one place, have a strong onboarding and training experience, and develop a meaningful relationship with their supervisor.”

The initiative at VCU will include partnerships among several offices and divisions, including Student Affairs, Human Resources, Strategic Enrollment Management and Student Success, and the School of Business, “to help our plan take shape,” Fuller said.

“There are a lot of stakeholders that have to be involved,” Lee added. “All of them have to have a part to play in transforming the student experience.”

Early-stage pilot programs may begin as soon as this spring, with more robust development and implementation over the next two years.

“One of the takeaways from the summit is that we are doing some things really well, like our Federal Work-Study positions,” Lee said. “VCU also just won a $100,000 grant from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to transform Work-Study into internships, and we will be collaborating closely with that project team moving forward.”

VCU has been building the foundation for the new Work+ initiative since January 2023.

“If our campus community is able to come together through a project like this to break down silos and intentionally build up the career readiness of our working-learners, there is no limit to the positive outcomes we can achieve,” Reynolds said. “Having paid, work-based learning experiences right on campus, supported by dedicated, compassionate, well-trained supervisors, can open so many doors for students.”

VCU employed more than 3,600 working-learners on campus in fiscal 2023.

“The Work+ team is committed to making the experience for all student employees more consistent, valuable and transferable as they contribute to our campus community and prepare for careers in a variety of fields after graduation,” Reynolds said.