The value of service
School of Business students gain experience and a new appreciation for how business skills can be used to help their communities through service learning courses
Service learning courses offered in the KU School of Business allow students to improve their communities using concepts they learn in class.
Serving learning can take different forms, but in the business school it’s often used as an experiential learning tool, explained lecturer and entrepreneurship program associate director Charlotte Tritch. In the Social Entrepreneurship course she teaches each semester, students work with a nonprofit to address business challenges identified by Tritch and the organization.
In past semesters, the class has worked with local schools, the Lawrence Community Shelter, KC-based Planet Play, and Trey, a nonprofit focused on helping student-athletes become leaders co-founded by alumni Rebecca Feickert and Brian Reynolds.
For Trey, students worked on several projects, including an expansion strategy and developing earned income. Throughout the semester, they communicated and collaborated with the client. At the end of the semester, groups made a presentation taking the client through how they understood the problem presented, the research they did to develop their ideas, their approach and their recommendations, as well as an implementation plan.
Senior business administration and journalism student Drea Torres worked on a marketing team for Trey in fall 2018, developing a brand book for the organization and helping them reach students, parents and coaches.
Torres was excited about the opportunity to work with the unique nonprofit and come up with innovative ideas to connect with its audience, she said, adding that she loved the real-world experience provided in the class.
“We can sit and read a book all day, but no textbook is going to teach you how to deal with a client,” she said. “No textbook is going to tell you that even if you do all the research and content creation, it still might not be right. When you work with real-world clients, you get that connection and you build those skillsets.”
During the spring 2019 semester, Tritch’s class is working to help Audio Reader determine ways to earn money in light of recent budget struggles. Students will be able to spend money as they develop their ideas thanks to a $500 mini-grant from KU’s Center for Service Learning. The same grant has helped associate professor Jessica Li provide a budget for students in her Integrated Marketing Communications course to use.
Li’s students developed a marketing campaign for a nonprofit based on the organization’s needs. One semester, Business Jayhawks worked on materials that would attract recurring donors to Lawrence food bank Just Food. During another semester, students collaborated with Headquarters Counseling Center to increase awareness and use of a new online chat feature in which people could receive counseling. The successful campaign helped Headquarters earn a grant.
Each semester, students receive an objective or come up with their own objective, then determine goals that can be reasonably accomplished during the time they have available. They research the target segment that the organization is wanting to reach, determine most effective messaging and vehicles, develop creative materials and implement their campaign.
“The goal is for them to learn about different forms of communication and be able to apply their knowledge about marketing and what mediums to use for their target market in a very practical way,” Li said.
By working with nonprofits, marketing students are helping make a difference while also putting their abilities to the test in a more challenging environment, she added.
“Being able to do a campaign with a minimal budget, that’s a skill they may not otherwise have,” Li said. “It forces them to understand their target market better and think deeply about what’s most effective.”
Students take the lead
Not all service learning courses involve students working with a specific organization. Associate professor Dan Spencer encourages students in his Management and Leadership: Leadership Business Organizations course to pursue projects they’re passionate about and have a strong interest in. Each student develops a project and leads a team of two other students to execute it.
“Since it’s a leadership course, I want to get them in a position where they are ‘leading’ a service learning project of their own design,” Spencer said. “There are as many unique projects as there are students in the class.”
Business Jayhawks often decide to run fundraisers, but others get creative. One student had a sister who was blind, so she worked with a national organization to develop touch-and-feel books for local students with visual impairment, Spencer recalled.
Learning to take the lead and problem-solve is a core component of lecturer Ken Ward’s Management and Leadership: Organizational Behavior honors course.
“Once you get into the workplace, no one’s telling you what to do,” he explained. “You don’t have a scoring guide. You just have to start taking the initiative and figure things out.”
Students in his course, offered each fall, work in teams and conduct an organizational climate study for their assigned nonprofit. They familiarize themselves with the nonprofit through direct service hours as well as additional research, then present their findings to the organization.
Ward said the structure gives his students presentation experience as well as practice communicating in a professional setting and dealing with the uncertainty they’ll encounter throughout their careers.
“It’s messy,” he said. “Mistakes are expected and welcomed.”
The approach is not one that all students appreciate — it takes them out of their comfort zone and forces them to take initiative, Ward said. But for those who take advantage of the opportunity, it can be hugely beneficial.
The student experience
Eyual Getahun, a 2013 finance and supply chain management graduate, took a service learning course with Ken Ward in fall 2012. Getahun and a partner worked with Douglas County food bank Just Food to implement an inventory management system.
“There was a lot of real opportunity to bring some of that supply chain technical experience we got at KU into this environment,” he said.
The duo used their technical backgrounds to create an access database app, which offered a simple way to keep track of the entry and exit of products. Although they worked with Just Food’s leadership, Getahun said one of his biggest takeaways was the value of getting information from people on the ground. The people managing the food bank’s distribution space were able to shed more light on needs, priorities and what was already in place. He carried that knowledge into a position at Hallmark, where he spent three years in a projects-based role.
Getahun also developed a deeper understanding of team dynamics from the class. During the project, his partner felt Getahun was taking on too much of the project and not giving him opportunities to contribute. Ward had to help the pair resolve their issues.
“I learned a lot from that experience about not assuming what somebody else needs,” Getahun said.
In addition to gaining experience working with organizations, students can also work toward earning a Service Learning Certificate from the Center for Service Learning. To earn the certificate, Jayhawks must complete a designated service learning course and a social awareness class as well as 60 hours of service.
“The thing is, we never know where our career trajectory might take us,” said Linda Dixon, director of the Center for Service Learning. “We don’t know what a given interviewer values and what connection they might have with volunteering, or if an amazing job will come up that happens to be for a nonprofit or a startup that tackles a social issue. The certificate is a recognition that might help students stand out.”
Beyond offering students a chance to gain real-world experience, service learning introduces them to the issues facing our community and the organizations working to solve them. Service learning projects can also connect the dots between what students learn in business classes and how those skills can be applied to nonprofits.