Making things happen: a look at NIU students and the ELC program

In the front entrance of the Impact Lab (a suite located in Barsema Hall), stands a large sign that reads: “Welcome to No Classrooms.”

It’s a clear declaration of the type of engaged learning that happens in the Experiential Learning Center (ELC), a program created by the NIU College of Business in 1998.  ELC classes bring together students’ open-mindedness and faculty thought-leadership to solve firm-specific problems.  It attracts students from across the university who seek active and personalized learning. In fact, they flock to it.  To date, more than 2,000 NIU students have participated as have a multitude of faculty and alumni as well as hundreds of Fortune 100  organizations, mid-sized enterprises, and entrepreneurial startups. And after all this time, a classroom has yet to be utilized in any traditional sense.

But as all things ELC go, it’s far less about space and far more about collaboration and growth. Current and former students to a person reinforce that point:

“The ELC provided me with the best in-school opportunity to get real, hands-on experience,” writes Zach Fiegel (B.S. Marketing), whose comments appear on the program’s webpage. Prior to graduating from NIU, Fiegel pursued a full-time corporate position with the National Basketball Association in New York and landed one. He rose through the ranks and is now a senior manager with the organization.

“Everything I had to do in the classroom was great, but the ELC took things to another level. ELC teams are forced to think critically, manage difficult situations and solve real problems for the organizations they work with.”

Along with the faculty guidance they receive, ELC teams utilize a full array of real-world professional approaches when they work on their client problems. Those approaches could include any number of business methodologies, onsite visits to client headquarters, phone or in person or virtual meetings with industry experts and collaboration sessions with fellow students, faculty, and alumni.

Collaboration also often happens in sizable work pods dedicated to each team and their faculty coaches. It’s in those work spaces where resume building becomes a living, breathing, tangible thing. Brainstorming overflows, challenges get resolved, questions pop up, team building happens, tech tools and white boards beckon, leadership and communication skills flourish. And an occasional nerf ball or two might even sail through the air if for no other reason than for the sake of creating a new mental vantage point.

ELC experiences prove to be so meaningful that by semester’s end it’s not at all unusual for some students to receive full-time job offers from their clients. Not too surprising, really. Especially for savvy students who approach this class as a 16 week job interview — a wise mindset since they gain access to company representatives in the form of their clients. And they’re put in front of chief executive officers, senior vice presidents, chief operating officers and the like with direct interaction when the student teams make their research-based recommendations.

Spring 2020 NIU Business graduate Edgar Lopez (pictured near the clock, image above) goes even further. He contends that the program’s real-life focus ultimately brings out the best in everyone… because everyone ends up learning skills that can be used “both in the classroom and outside, now and in the future.”

His experience, spotlighted in a recent Rochelle News-Leader story, illustrates the point. A self-described aspiring entrepreneur, Lopez was a member of an ELC student team responsible for crafting marketing and business strategies for startup company called Therome, which develops treatments to combat vision loss. Lopez says the experience proved invaluable to everyone involved, the students and the company founders alike who are also physicians and who Lopez described as “speechless” when they saw the caliber of the students’ work.

When the spring 2020 semester wrapped, ELC students completed projects in a range of industries for eight organizationsGraingerVous VitaminsEcho Global LogisticsMaxwell TelecareNorthern Illinois Research Foundation and Therome Innovation Partners, The Shelby GroupTransnational Payments, and uterUS, a startup company based in Manitou Springs, Colorado. Their real-world business solutions ranged from the research and development of a fully articulated business plan, marketing strategies, sustainability plans to a strategic vision with initiatives for going green.

The Experiential Learning Center in the NIU College of Business welcomes applications from all students across the university. Not only do participating students work on impressive, resume-worthy projects, but they gain an extensive opportunity to develop valuable professional skills, primary among them the ability to give strong presentations, teamwork, leadership, collaboration, problem-solving and communication. 

Or put another way: Welcome to the potential launch of your amazing career.

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