Employers love hiring UW alumni. But alumni fresh out of school? Not so much. The problem, they say, is that new grads still think too much like students. By their second job, they’ve learned what it means to be a professional.
Hearing that from employers got the staff of the College of Arts & Sciences C21 program thinking: “What if we could give students a first job experience, where they could make common first-job mistakes and learn from them, before they graduate?” The result is the C21 Story Institute, introduced this summer.
At the start of the program, the 23 undergraduate participants were given name badges and welcomed as new employees of Gesture, a fictional consulting firm specializing in user research on the attitudes of college students. The undergrads were treated as Gesture employees throughout the month-long program, working on research projects for actual clients, including Amazon. They worked from 8 to 5 daily, and stayed late as deadlines loomed. C21 staff took on roles of leadership in the company, from CEO to brand director to project director.
“We wanted to make the experience as much like a real first job as we could, based on what we heard from employers,” says Kevin Mihata, C21 director and associate dean for educational programs in the College of Arts & Sciences. “We wanted to focus on the things that employers told us new employees typically fail at in the beginning. We figured we could give students the opportunity to mess up in a safer context.”
The Institute worked with three clients. The first was the UW Career and Internship Center, which wanted to know why visits to the Center dipped midway through students’ academic careers. Next was the UW Office of Global Affairs, which wondered why many students who indicate an interest in study abroad as freshmen do not end up studying abroad during their time at the University. The final client, Amazon, had developed an employee recruitment campaign and wanted to know how it would resonate with current college students. For each project, the Gesture staff conducted in-person and online interviews with hundreds of students, analyzed the responses, and made recommendations.
Central to all of this work was the idea of story. “The consulting work was about understanding and presenting the stories of the students that had been interviewed,” says Mihata. “Story requires the ability to grasp context and read culture. These are skills that liberal arts students are particularly suited to bring to an organization.”
We wanted to make the experience as much like a real first job as we could....
Andrew Tsao, associate professor of drama, worked with the students on story development. Between the first and second client projects, each student crafted a five-minute “Gesture Talk” — a formal presentation in which they shared their own story. “We told them that as an employee of Gesture, they had to know their own story to engage in the stories of others,” says Gretchen Ludwig, C21’s manager of learning initiatives. “The presentations had a universal theme and a personal story attached to that. Many of the students said those talks were a turning point, because as soon as they saw how vulnerable they had to be and how vulnerable their colleagues were, it really opened them up to collaboration.”
Though the students worked together more effectively after the Gesture Talks, they still messed up plenty. Fortunately, that was the point of the program. Their Gesture bosses always called them on their blunders, something a real boss might not take the time to do. The C21 staff dubbed such conversations “behind-the-curtain” talks.
As the CEO of Gesture, Mihata had many of these conversations. He didn’t pull any punches. “I might say, ‘Your presentation made me think you were lazy or disinterested,’” Mihata recalls. “’But as CEO, I ‘m not going to take the time to tell you that. I’m just going to carry that impression of you from now on, have less confidence in you, and you’re never going to know. And that was completely avoidable if you’d done this and this and this.’ So that’s the kind of behind-the-curtain conversation we might have. We gave them feedback not because we were irritated, but because that was precisely what they needed to learn to avoid making that same impression in the future.”
UW junior Wynston Hsu appreciated the tough love approach, though not always in the moment. “I complained a lot to my friends,” he admits. “Usually it was about the long work days, the high expectations, and the busted weekend plans. But whenever my friends asked if I regretted taking this program, my answer was always no. I have grown and developed so much as an individual. I have strongly recommended this program to all my friends.”
On the last day of the Story Institute, C21 organized a networking event at which the students used their newfound story skills to schmooze with recruiters from more than a dozen companies, including Nordstrom and Amazon. The students’ attentive listening and ability to ask thoughtful questions did not go unnoticed. “They were actively engaging with the recruiters on a different level than most students,” says Ludwig. “On the way out, one of the recruiters said this was a completely different group of students than she had ever seen, and that there were three she would hire right now.”
The recruiter will have to wait. All of the students have a least one more year at the UW, with the majority entering their sophomore or junior year. But when the time comes, the students will be ready. After all, they’re seasoned professionals now, thanks to the C21 Story Institute.
“I learned to step up and face my fears, little by little,” says junior Christina Sa. “I became more aware of my actions and I am more willing to listen to others’ stories. Gesture helped me understand what my strengths are and what I can improve on. …The end of this program was the start of a new story for me.”