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A chicken in every pot

March 24, 2015
NIU Spring Internship Fair: Feb. 17, 2015

NIU Spring Internship Fair: Feb. 17, 2015

Some are community advisers and dining hall managers in the residence halls. Some are tutors at ACCESS. Some are employed at Career Services.

Two students are working this semester as web application developers for Housing & Dining – and, like several of their fellow Huskies, earning internship credit or transcript notations along the way.

And why not? Many student-worker jobs at NIU inherently promote critical thinking skills, application of classroom knowledge and oral and written communication.

“It’s really a great opportunity for students,” said Jan Gerenstein, associate director of Residential Technology, which has employed students from the Department of Computer Science for 15 years.

“We’ve always tried to give students in our area a lot of responsibility. We give them real-world work so they’re going to learn and benefit, and they’ve often told us that the work they’ve done here has helped them get great jobs after they leave.”

The new way of looking at student jobs is part of a pilot project this spring to tie on-campus student employment to academic internship credit and/or transcript notation – and among several innovations conceived during brainstorming sessions to make one of NIU President Doug Baker’s oft-repeated promises a reality.

“President Baker has said that any student who wants to have an internship will have that opportunity,” said Laurie Elish-Piper, presidential adviser on College and Career Readiness, “and we really feel like the tide has turned. We are on the verge of something big. There is a great deal of enthusiasm and a great deal of understanding on our campus that an internship can make a huge difference.”

NIU Spring Internship Fair: Feb. 17, 2015Internships provide “a critical component to Student Career Success,” she added, and Baker’s guarantee “is something that could become a distinguishing characteristic of NIU.”

Elish-Piper began exploring the “transformational” possibilities in August 2013, when she first huddled with NIU Alumni Association Executive Director Joe Matty and Eric Weldy, vice president of the Division of Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.

First, the group identified three “pathways” to internships.

Only one of those pathways – existing internships that are required for successful completion of a program; for example, clinical experiences in nursing and teacher education – required no further discussion.

But the second – on-campus student employment – and the third – a proactive and purposely “outside the box” search for new internships off campus – offered fertile ground for creativity and expansion.

The second pathway is “the low-hanging fruit,” Elish-Piper said.

“The students are here, they’re getting paid, we’re supervising them and there’s no transportation worries,” she said. “These jobs really call upon professional skills.”

Enter Cathy Doederlein and Chad Glover, tasked with taking that message to the streets, evangelizing and hunting.

NIU Spring Internship Fair: Feb. 17, 2015So far, so good.

“Many NIU employees really believe in the mission of providing an internship to every student – they’ve heard about the value – and, to many of our staff members, the idea that they could directly participate in providing internships is very exciting,” said Glover, a human resource officer.

“In the meetings I’ve had with staff from different departments, it takes me about five to 10 minutes to explain how they can connect their positions to the program,” he added, “and then, right on the spot, they look at each other and start brainstorming about what they could do – right in front of me. The creativity being unleashed by this program across campus is going to be fun to be a part of.”

Such is the reassessment that took place in the Department of Computer Science.

Credit previously was awarded only for extracurricular work with off-campus employers who exposed students to the real world, said Doederlein, internship coordinator for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Yet a review of the job description and goals for interns in the Residential Technology student technology application developer role convinced department leadership that “just because it isn’t off-campus doesn’t mean that it’s not a great learning experience.”

Gerenstein’s interns complement their academic curriculum as they “assist in the planning, analysis, design and implementation of a new feature that will give Residential Technology the ability to quickly, efficiently and accurately make new records in an existing issue tracking system used for managing student and staff help requests, technical problems and residential computer lab issues.”

NIU Spring Internship Fair: Feb. 17, 2015They also “help plan a timeline for this feature, interview employees within Residential Technology to gain an understanding of system requirements and work with other application developers in a team to design and implement this feature.”

Curtis Grimes, applications developer and server administrator in Residential Technology, supervises the interns.

His students are expected to work in teams, ask questions to determine the business needs of their applications, analyze the answers, discern the best way to program those solutions and successfully complete the programming.

Along the way, he added, they learn about new web-based technologies.

“NIU’s Department of Computer Science focuses a lot of its curriculum on enterprise software and mainframe programming, which is awesome, because there is a huge need for that,” said Grimes, an alum of the department who’s working toward his master’s there. “But the students get less experience with web development, which is what our department focuses on, and the students here have been excited to develop their skills.”

Beyond the work required to keep the campus running, students who are turning those jobs into internships must meet specific academic requirements that include final reports and/or portfolios.

“This isn’t a ‘Here’s what I did on my summer vacation’ thing. Students need to make connections between what they did in the internship and what they’ve been learning in the classroom,” Doederlein said.

“When they go into the professional world and make these links, it leads to students having those ‘A-ha!’ moments: ‘This is why I have to learn this. This is why I’m bothering with this,’ ” she added. “It seems to me that students who complete internships come back with greater renewed passion, especially for their major courses. They feel more of a purpose in why they’re studying those things, and that motivates them to do better.”

NIU Spring Internship Fair: Feb. 17, 2015Or maybe they realize that they’re on the wrong path, something that makes on-campus internships valuable by helping students make that discovery earlier in their college careers.

External internships are just as worthwhile, of course, and that’s where the third pathway leads.

Naturally, Elish-Piper and her team are dreaming big.

“We’re talking to students,” she said, “and asking, ‘Where are you going to be working this summer? What are you going to be doing? Do you think it could be an internship?’ ”

Staff at the NIU Alumni Association and Career Services are posing similar questions to employers who already have strong ties to NIU: “Do you have any internships or jobs for our students?”

The “third pathway” brainstorming includes:

“Internships are what we value and what we want to provide,” she said. “Internships help students build their professional network. Internships build confidence in a structured, supportive environment. Internships provide evidence for future employers of commitment, knowledge and expertise. Internships are where all things come together.”