Student Employment: Linking College and the Workplace

Excerpted from Student Employment: Linking College and the Workplace, Rick Kincaid, Editor, Published by the National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience, 1996. This article originally appeared as the concluding chapter. It was contributed by John N. Gardner, Executive Director of University 101, and Executive Director of the National Resource Center for the Freshman Year Experience.

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It is an excellent mission statement for everyone who employs students.

"I believe that those of us who have responsibility for providing employment for students during college, either directly in the units over which we exercise supervision or through referrals to agencies and organizations with which we have contact, also have responsibility for insuring that these work settings have a potential for providing a meaningful and positive student employment learning experience. To that end, I want to present the following observations and recommendations:

  1. We must recognize that student employees are, first and foremost, college students. Their academic work must take priority. Therefore, the demands we make of them should not interfere with but should be supportive of their academic goals.
  2. Therefore, when possible, we need to provide flexible work schedules or at least the understanding that when crunch time comes at exams, for example, we recognize that their highest priority must be studying for those exams and not working in our offices.
  3. We need to take the position that college student employment is a laboratory, a learning setting, a powerful and vital co-curricular classroom with the potential opportunity for powerful learning outcomes.
  4. We should recognize that higher educators who supervise students are acting in the role of teachers and models for professional development and behavior.
  5. In light of this role of educational supervision as teacher, it is imperative that we explain to students the rationale for their duties and the importance of their role in the functions of the unit or department.
  6. We need to create for our students meaningful work, rather than making them "gophers." By meaningful work, I mean some kind of work that will lead to positive learning outcomes.
  7. We need to give students credit for the work they have performed (not taking credit ourselves) and, whenever possible, include their names on written work that they have helped produce.
  8. We need to be as inclusive as possible of students in as many functions of the organization as possible, for example, allowing them to attend staff meetings so that they can see how the unity makes decisions, handles group processes, sets goals, resolves conflicts, solves problems - for better or for worse!
  9. We need to demonstrate an interest in more than just their work behavior, duties, and functions. Instead, we need to inquire respectively, non-invasively, as to their academic success and personal adjustment to the campus and thus treat them as the whole persons we know them to be.
  10. I believe that one of the worst things that we can do to our students is to under utilize them or engage them in work that is not meaningful. We need to remember at all times that they are in a formative period of their lives when they are learning their attitudes towards the concept of work and especially professional work. We need to remember that for many of these students, college work experience is the first time in their lives they have proximity to working professionals. Thus, they are learning their attitudes not only towards work per se, but also towards professional work ethics, standards, and responsibilities.
  11. We need to make sure they are carefully trained for the duties they perform, that they are evaluated for this performance, and rewarded commensurately. To the extent possible, the performance assessment needs to be a mirror and an analog of the process we use for the full-time employees of our units.
  12. We need to convey to them proper terms of respect and address. We need to provide for them signs for their work stations, list their names in our directories and in our publications where appropriate.
  13. One of the most important ways we can support our students is to serve as references for graduate school and employment opportunities. We may assume that they would automatically call upon us to perform this important function. But I believe we need to make our willingness to do so explicit. When we care called upon to serve as references, we need to perform this task as thoroughly and as conscientiously as possible. This is one of the single most important forms of support we can provide for our students in this increasingly competitive and tight job market faced by our student employees.
  14. Everything I know about the work world and life after college suggests that learning to work in teams is one of the most essential skills our students will be required to possess and to demonstrate in "the real world". Therefore, students need the opportunity to practice teamwork in employment settings.
  15. We need to practice the kind of inclusiveness in our own hiring patterns necessary to provide equal opportunity for all of America's college students. To the extent we can make our own work environments during college a pluralistic, multi-cultural environment, our students will be more able to function in such an environment with success after college. . . . "

Gardner goes on to examine differences in work on the campus and after graduation. . .

"In his chapter "Preparing Students for Life Beyond the Classroom: The Role of Higher Education" Ed Holton argues the existence of what he describes as "the paradox of academic preparation." He writes as follows:

New graduates then face a dramatic culture shift when they move from college to the professional world. The work world is so fundamentally different from the world of education that it requires an almost total transformation on the part of the new graduate. And organizations want employees 'who fit" their culture and are quick to look for confirmation that a new employee will "fit."

The paradox is that while the knowledge acquired in college is critical to graduates' success, the process of succeeding in school is very different than the process of succeeding at work. Many of the skills students develop to be successful in education processes, and the behaviors for which they are rewarded, are not the ones they will need to be successful at work! Worse yet, the culture of education is so different that if seniors continue to have the same expectations of their employers that they did of their college and professors, they will be greatly disappointed with their job and make costly career mistakes. Despite their best attempts to make adjustments, they cannot adjust for educational conditioning because they are not conscious of it.

If seniors do not have any interventions and do what comes naturally, they will unknowingly continue to expect the work place to be like college. Many of the behaviors that managers label as "immature,' "naïve," or not fitting-in" and which keep newcomers from being successful, are simply behaviors that education has not only tolerated, but rewarded and encouraged. In many cases, new graduates are simply doing in the work place what they have been conditioned to do for 17 years! And they do it simply because they are not being taught and differently, not because they are naive or unwilling to adapt. To compound the paradox, the graduates employers seek the most are the most successful ones who have learned the education system the best. Not surprisingly, they can have the most difficulty unlearning the more familiar educational process. (Holton, in press).

College vs. The First Year of Work

  • Frequent, quick and concrete feedback (grades, etc.) vs. Infrequent and less precise feedback
  • Highly structured curriculum and programs with lots of directions and tasks vs. Highly unstrucuted environment with few directions
  • Personally supportive environment vs. Less personal support
  • Few significant changes vs. Frequent and unexpected changes
  • Flexible Schedule vs. Inflexible schedule
  • Frequent breaks and time off vs. Limited time off
  • Personal control over time, classes, interests vs. Responding to other's directions and interests
  • Intellectional challenges vs. Organizational and people challenges
  • Choose your performance level (A, B, C, etc.) vs. A level work required all the time
  • Focus on your development and growth vs. Focus on getting results for the organization
  • Create and explore knowledge vs. Get results with your knowledge
  • Individual Effort vs. Team effort
  • Right answers vs. Few right answers

Clearly all of us want our graduates to achieve professional success. But as Holton (in press) argues, we have a responsibility to realize "many helpful practices embedded in the academic culture have the unintended affect of hindering graduates in the workplace." he argues, and I would concur, that educators "must strike a better balance between the supportive, more ambiguous" elements and processes of our culture which do not contribute to a positive adaptation to the real world after college."

Last Updated 7/8/20

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