Winning Edge

Dr. Kathy Johnson and Dr. Stephen Hundley

College undergraduates face plenty of challenges and lifestyle adjustments, from juggling coursework to learning to get around on a university campus. 

The new IUPUI Career EDGE program, which debuts this fall, aims to lighten their load by providing practical strategies to help students stay organized, attain their educational goals and get a good start in the world of work.

“First and foremost, we want to help our students be successful in whatever happens after graduation, whether it’s pursuing a graduate or professional degree or getting a job,” said Stephen P. Hundley, Ph.D. Chair and Professor, Department of Technology Leadership & Communication in the School of Engineering and Technology, and Associate Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives, Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor & Chief Academic Officer, IUPUI.

Dr. Stephen Hundley and Dr. Kathy Johnson

Dr. Stephen Hundley and Dr. Kathy Johnson are leading the effort to ensure the success of IUPUI graduates.

Perhaps the most important step toward that goal is assisting students in gaining, while still in school, the proper mix of skills and practical experience to help them put their diplomas to good use. Those skills include critical thinking, speaking and writing well, problem solving, teamwork and a firm understanding of the nature of our globally connected world.

“There was a lot of input for the EDGE program from local business communities that desire graduates to be better-prepared to hit the ground and be able to succeed and compete not only in Indiana, but in any context they choose,” Hundley said.

The EDGE program is one portion of a larger effort, financed by a $5 million Lily Endowment grant, to improve Indiana’s economic competitiveness by enlisting the resources of the various Indiana University campuses statewide. EDGE is designed to offer a roadmap and instruction manual to help students (among other things) think about how best to gain practical experience in their fields of study via internships and other options, while also tutoring them in such vital professional skills as networking and resume preparation.

“We want to give students a career edge,” Hundley said. “The word EDGE is an acronym to describe four distinct yet related phases of this process – exploration, development, graduation and employment.”

The Exploration portion of the program aims to give IUPUI students – or students at any IU campus – the ability to assess their personal needs, values, interests and level of preparation, and then determine from that assessment what sorts of majors, minors and/or certificates they might want to pursue to fulfill them.

“The exploration piece really helps people even before they visit our campuses,” Hundley said. “They will get a deeper understanding of their backgrounds and the opportunities afforded to them by an IU education.”

The program’s Development piece challenges students to obtain practical, experiential learning opportunities as early as possible in their academic careers. The reason for such an approach is obvious: the earlier a student gets a real taste of the field he or she is studying for, the more marketable they will become to potential employers. Alternatively, the earlier they get real-world experience, the earlier they can decide if a career path that seemed attractive in the abstract is really the one they want to pursue.

“They’re getting those early experiential learning opportunities so they can clarify that this is the right path they’re on,” Hundley said. “We have to get those students early, so they have opportunities to get that experience, reflect on that experience, improve what they’re doing and sharpen their skills and their direction.”

The Graduation portion of the EDGE program stresses the benefits of students completing their studies in a timely manner. The Indiana Commission for Higher Education has made a point of encouraging institutions of higher learning to help their students avoid delaying graduation. There are several economic benefits to this promptness. Studies show that both starting salaries and lifetime earnings tend to be higher for those who finish on time.

“We want to stress the benefits of timely graduation,” Hundley said. “It will help them, it will help the institution. And it will help our communities and our businesses by having more college-educated employees available.”

The final “E” in EDGE stands for employment. It’s the ultimate goal of the program, and the reason it places so much emphasis on practical experience. The first four EDGE learning “modules” will be deployed across the IU system in the fall of 2015, with four more offered in 2016 and another four in 2017. These self-contained units are designed to serve as standalone programs that students can tackle independently, though optimally they can be integrated into a series of courses throughout the entire curriculum of various degree programs.

First-year courses will focus on career development and exploration – an emphasis that Dr. Kathy Johnson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Education, thinks extremely important. Those first-year courses will be followed up with additional modules in later academic years, culminating in capstone courses so that students concluding their studies will have a touch point with the EDGE program.

The first modules will focus on such practical topics as resume development and gaining a better understanding of one’s personal interests and educational options. There’s also a module devoted to parallel planning – developing alternative ways to reach educational goals if a student’s first approach doesn’t pan out. Essentially how to develop a Plan B, though both Johnson and Hundley are loathe to call it that.

“The parallel planning module is really intended for students who are planning to enter very highly competitive, admission-based degree programs,” Johnson said. “Things like business, nursing, engineering, radiography. The goal of that module is to make it normal for students to not just think of only one path to their goal. They should have at least a couple of different paths available. For example, we might have them do some research about other ways to get into nursing, or to explore other programs aligned with healthcare professions.”

The modules will also address some fairly mundane topics so that IUPUI academic counselors won’t have to. Because repeating the same information to hundreds of different students isn’t the most efficient use of their time.

“We’ve heard from a lot of advisors that they spend a great deal of time repeatedly having the same conversations with students,” Johnson said. “We’re hoping to offload some of those routinized tasks, such as how to put together a resume, into modules that students would be expected to do before they even meet with a career advisor, so that the advisor’s time is spent more productively on personalized attention for that student.”

The fourth of the first four EDGE modules to be deployed this fall focuses on helping students prepare for “experiential” learning – things like internships, which will allow them to get real-world experience in their fields of study. The EDGE program’s creators believe such practical experience can’t come too early in the typical student’s college career.

“The module helps them prepare to go to a career fair, helps them to prepare their ‘elevator speech,’ helps them network with a variety of people in their sphere of influence,” Hundley said.

Within a few years, Hundley and Johnson hope that all incoming students will be able to access the EDGE program as part of their admissions and orientation process. And that a growing cadre of faculty will integrate EDGE materials into their coursework.  

“I think career advisors are excited that this will be a new resource,” Johnson said. “There are similar products available commercially, but I think what’s exciting about this program is that it’s focused on our students and our degree programs on the campuses of Indiana University. Ultimately we hope that this is going to translate into more students being more successful in having internship experiences and getting placed in jobs. That, in my mind, is the most important outcome.”