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More than a paycheck: ASU reimagines the student-worker experience

Work+ initiative aims to better integrate learning, career skills


Students standing in front of a wall with different words and phrases.
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October 26, 2023

Arizona State University is reimagining the student-work experience to make it more valuable and to help Sun Devils on their career path.

The initiative, called Work+ (pronounced "work plus"), is focusing on enriching the time that students spend on their ASU jobs, from the dining halls to the labs to the athletic fields.

Work+ is a shift in perspective. Students will see that jobs they consider to be necessary responsibilities are actually developing professional skills and enhancing their college experience.

Several hundred ASU students have already participated in Work+ pilots, and their feedback is driving the design process for a universitywide framework. The goal is to include all 12,000 student workers at ASU, according to Sukhwant Jhaj, dean of University College and vice provost for academic innovation and student achievement.

“Students think about their work experience as something separate, something that is helping them pay for college — not as a learning experience,” he said.

“We know from national research that when students have work experiences with productive and constructive engagement with their supervisors, they do well academically.

“So we’re thinking of student work as a student success strategy.”

The Work+ team has set three outcomes: increased career-readiness skills, a better relationship between supervisors and student workers, and an increased ability by the students to identify and articulate the career skills they are learning.

“When students get good work experience, they’re able to demonstrate the value of what they learned, and they earn more, have a more positive view of the value of higher education and of their own education,” Jhaj said.

Student workers give feedback

The initiative, which started three years ago, is a collaboration among the University College, Career Services and the Student Employment Office.

Work+ received an initial planning grant from the Strada Education Foundation to support technology, stipends and administrative costs for the pilot phase.

The team quickly learned that supervisor support is a key component of success, according to Brandee Popaden-Smith, director of Work+ for the University College.

“We’ve vastly grown our support and work with the supervisors, who are the linchpin of the student-employment experience,” she said.

Feedback from the student workers was crucial.

“We were holding feedback sessions multiple times a semester and taking ideas based on previous feedback and bringing in the students to half-day or full-day design sessions,” she said.

“We did surveys every semester to understand the student employment experience, both from those in Work+ and those who are not yet in it.”

Next spring, the team will launch the latest iteration of the Work+ experience, with the goal of scaling up to all ASU student workers by December 2025.

Brainstorming nationwide

Besides scaling up at ASU, the university is collaborating with 11 partner institutions in the Work+Collective to co-design a nationwide expansion. Earlier this year, ASU was awarded $1.5 million by the Strada Education Foundation as part of its Beyond Completion Challenge for the project.

Over the summer, the ASU group traveled to the other schools.

“We took our experience and facilitated two-day discovery sprints so every campus could design what was best for their own context,” Popaden-Smith said.

“We shared what was working for us, but the goal was to help them understand their own student population.”

Last week, the 11 partnersThe other participating institutions are Chandler-Gilbert Community College, Georgia State University, the University of Maine, the University at Buffalo, the University of Connecticut, the University of Central Florida, the University of Illinois-Chicago, the University of Michigan-Dearborn, the University of Minnesota and Virginia Commonwealth University., including Northern Arizona University, came to ASU for the Work+Institute, a two-day design collaboration. The attendees, many of whom work in career or student services at their campuses, brainstormed challenges and solutions to upgrading the student-work experience.

Amy Michalenko, senior project manager with University College, participated in a small-group session at the workshop, held at the Omni Hotel Tempe. The participants were discussing the enthusiasm they’ve seen among first-year students, who are often eager to take on job responsibility.

“One of my first student workers I hired at ASU was an incoming freshman student and started with me the first week she was at ASU,” Michalenko said.

Within a few months, she was running one of the programs, and ended up staying her entire four years.

“It was because I was willing to hand this stuff over to her and she rose to the occasion,” she said.

The participants also discussed the importance of Work+ for students who are financially dependent on their campus job.

“They don’t have the choice to take an unpaid internship and give up their student job. It’s what’s supporting their families or the only way they can buy books,” Michalenko said.

As the 12 institutions roll out their own versions of Work+, they’ll share their best practices with each other, Jhaj said.

“The Work+Collective footprint is very large, and the number of students involved is very large,” he said.

“At the end of this grant, we will have a new national model for on-campus employment that redesigns student employment to be a transformative educational experience.”

Top image: Participants of the Work+Collective collaborate on reimagining the student-work experience at the Omni Hotel Tempe on Friday, Oct. 20. Behind them is a visual representation of various supervisor-student projects. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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