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Work+ program awarded grant to transform career outcomes for working learners

ASU students, staff dive into a new way to learn and work with purpose and identity at the core

Woman standing next to a man seated at a computer. They are both smiling as the woman points at the computer screen.
March 22, 2022

Nearly two years ago, the pandemic unquestionably changed our lives in countless ways. One of those notable changes was when, where and how we work and learn. But one academic unit at Arizona State University had its sights on transforming the future of work for both student employees and professional staff even before COVID-19 pushed the world to work and learn remotely.

In fall 2020, University College, a hub for ASU learner success, launched Work+ in collaboration with ASU Career and Professional Development Services and the Student Employment Office

The program’s goal is to deliver a meaningful and engaging way for working learners and staff to experience their work at ASU, and in January 2022, Work+ was awarded a national grant for $250,000 by Strada Education Network as part of its Beyond Completion Challenge for “developing strategies to expand career support.” Grant funds will support technology and digital asset development, stipends and administrative costs.

Piloted with just under 500 students, Work+ has continued to grow, with both student and staff participants. The ultimate goal will be to grow, scale and share this model with other universities around the country such that working learners nationwide are prepared to not only land careers they’re passionate about, but to be in careers where they can grow as individuals and professionals. 

Sukhwant Jhaj, dean of University College and vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement, said that with nearly 14 million working students in America, it is time to shift the old paradigm, perception and experiences of modern working college students. Instead of doing a job purely to cover rent, tuition and the ever-rising cost of living, Work+ provides students with enriching experiences that develop their sense of identity, agency and purpose from their ASU employment. 

“What's interesting is the non-traditional student is the new traditional student,” he said. “With the change in the nature of work, learning is also changing. Our model (of Work+) supports how we deliver that learning,” he said. 

Jhaj also said that with the rising cost of living, emerging technologies and sheer competition for high-paying roles, it is now more important than ever for students to articulate their academic and career journeys.

“The problem that we are working on is a really important one, which is how do we help students connect work and learning? In the last 30 years, a high school degree was adequate for the majority of the work that existed in America. Now, you need some form of postsecondary credential for the majority of work,” he said. 

In a one-year period, ASU employs roughly more than 12,000 student learners spanning all four campuses, remote work and at SkySong.

Brandee Popaden-Smith, director of Work + Learn within University College, said that the program empowers working students to engage meaningfully with their work at ASU. 

“We felt that it was really timely to rethink this relationship between work and learning, and to pioneer new kinds of models where students' work experience gives them the tools to articulate their stories,” she said. 

Work+ is modeled with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) career-ready competencies at the core, including career and self-development, communication, critical thinking, equity and inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork and technology. Using these eight competencies, Work+ goes beyond experiences in internships or fields of study.

It also encourages students to think about and ask themselves confidence-building questions like: Who am I? What am I trying to do? What kind of problems do I want to solve in this world? How must I, through my agency, act at this particular moment?

While purpose and identity are the crux of the program, Work+ also teaches practical skills for moving up in any role, negotiating salary and responsibilities.

Aliya Kubala, Operations Specialist and a working learner with Work+, had the opportunity to put into practice that negotiation when an opportunity for a new working learner position arose on the Work+ team.

Kubala, who has worked in various units throughout the university, including Career and Professional Development Services, as well as in several customer service-based roles, said she now knows how to tell her career story.

“From observing what we do at Work+ as both a program participant and a working learner, I had the confidence to speak to my supervisors and clearly outlined what I’ve brought to the table. I was able to get the salary boost I asked for,” she said.

Popaden-Smith envisions the Work+ model being used widely for working learners across nonprofit, government and corporate sectors. 

“We’re helping students truly make meaning out of every working experience they go through. We want them to know that all of their working experiences are wildly transferable into whatever they're interested in doing after they graduate from ASU,” she said. 

Presently, the program is designed within Canvas, but the Work+ model will continue to to go beyond the modality of a Canvas course with access that engages students on many levels.

To make Work+ a more rewarding experience, the team has designed a badging system such that as students progress through the program, they are awarded badges that they can add to their professional profiles.

From a student perspective, Kubala said she appreciates the mentorship tenant of Work+ most.  

“It (the program) gets the supervisors into a different mindset where they’re helping students gain all of these skills,” she said. “It guides you along and shows you how you can craft all your experiences into a story. And it's not just something like ‘now I have communication skills.’ Now, in interviews, I can show how I communicated  and collaborated as an individual and in a group.” 

Work+ is also designed to reinvigorate and engage professional staff, which ultimately improves the entire experience. 

“We're looking to create an experience that is broadly usable and that any working learner could access,” Popaden-Smith said. “We want to  make sure that students really know how to do effective reflection for themselves.” 

Top photo courtesy iStock/Getty Images

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