Colleges and universities itching to strengthen their students’ workforce readiness may seek to partner with employers. If Amazon or Google are still out of reach, institutions may already be sitting on a goldmine: community and regional nonprofits.
Employers are keen to believe that college graduates lack the necessary soft skills to contribute to their workforce. However, Devon Player, a 2023 graduate of Whitman College (Wash.), owes her budding career at the Walla Walla Community Council to the work of the college’s Career and Community Engagement Center.
“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I got to college, but the people I got to work with in the community shifted that,” she says. “I was getting actual practical experience with different types of roles and meeting people who are really important mentors in my life now.”
Player thought about joining community engagement services during pre-orientation as she sought her own sense of community and belonging as a first-year student. Quickly, she began understanding what it meant to break out of the “Whitman bubble.”
The bubble students must learn to break out of refers to the membrane that usually surrounds predominantly white, wealthy student populations at a prestigious university from the broader community. At Whitman, it’s the rural Walla Walla community. Lynn Pierson, director of Bucknell University’s (Penn.) Office of Civic Engagement, is familiar with the bubble, which divides its students from Lewisburg and the region surrounding the West Branch of the Susquehanna River.
“Students are working one-on-one with these community leaders to understand what it means to get beyond the Bucknell bubble,” Pierson says, “past Market Street where all the pretty shops are.”
Pierson and Player touched on many of the same foundational soft skills students cultivated to break out of their comfort zones and work with their respective university partners. They included humility, communication, reflection and active listening.
“Working in the nonprofit world really helps them reframe their lens of perception,” says Pierson. “When they’re in the community, they’re often working with a very diverse workforce or population they may not get in corporate America.”
All of these soft skills culminate in students building entrepreneurial and leadership skills that allow students to take feedback well and act accordingly, a feature Pierson believes human beings struggle with naturally.
But aside from the intangibles students will develop by breaking out of their comfort zone, students can also benefit from working with community leaders by building their professional network and cultivating career-ready skills. Player earned her position without a job posting. Moreover, Bucknell’s Shepherd Poverty Internship Program teaches students how to write a legal brief and build skills in the courtroom. Some students applied for Fulbright Program scholarships with an awakened passion for community organizing.
Whitman’s Career and Community Engagement Center allows the university to integrate career paths and internships with community opportunities. However, as a sociology department student liaison, Players hopes her alma mater can integrate community service into the school curriculum, which Bucknell has done.
Bucknell’s Management 101 course pushes students to set up companies that raise resources and perform work for community service partners. One student company recently created a food pantry to alleviate the region’s food insecurity.
“School isn’t just about learning,” a student involved with the project said, according to WNEP. “You can make a community-wide impact.”