up next Joanne Li
Empowering College Students Through Experiential Learning
By Jackie Ostrowicki
Practice makes perfect. This is a phrase most of us have heard throughout our lives. It may have applied to things like piano, sports, art or other extracurricular activities. But what it’s really talking about is experiential learning.
In a college setting, experiential learning is an engaged learning process where students learn by doing—and then by reflecting on the experience. This learning can take place in many forms, including volunteering, serviceships, study abroad or internships. These opportunities enrich the student experience and provide lessons that stay with them throughout their academic and professional careers.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha is focusing on internships and other experiential learning opportunities that help their students and the community at the same time. Dr. Joanne Li, who serves as UNO’s chancellor, is excited about the possibilities—and the way that UNO can serve as a facilitator in meeting workforce needs.
"Over 40 percent of internships in the United States are unpaid. That is detrimental to students. Our student body comes from an underserved community with very little economic support. If they do an unpaid internship, they lose income—which may increase the likelihood of dropping out of college."
The Value of Paid Internships
Li said, "Getting an internship is not only about getting paid, but about understanding how to be a professional. Students learn how to prioritize, how to manage time, how to be a responsible person—all while they're going to college."
Internships allow students to investigate career opportunities, apply knowledge gained in the classroom and develop new skills and contacts that will be helpful in securing future employment or graduate school admission.
In particular, UNO is focusing on creating paid internships—short-term work experiences that help students to apply their academic coursework to experiential learning.
For a metropolitan university, paid internships are important for two key reasons. First, a large majority of the student body comes from non-traditional backgrounds; many are supporting families. It’s not financially feasible to participate in unpaid internships, as the loss of income directly impacts them and creates hardship. Unpaid internships tend to advantage students who are already advantaged.
"Over 40 percent of internships in the United States are unpaid; that is detrimental to students," Li said. "Our student body comes from an underserved community with very little economic support. If they do an unpaid internship, they lose income—which may increase the likelihood of dropping out of college."
The second reason paid internships are important: when employers look at students’ previous work experience, they lend more weight to paid experiences. Data from the National Association of Colleges and Employers show that students who had worked as paid interns received an average of 1.12 job offers in 2021, while unpaid interns received an average of 0.85 and those with no internship experience received 0.64 job offers. Paid internships tend to pay off.
Meeting Workforce and Community Needs
UNO recently launched an innovative new program focused on connecting students with internships. It’s called Career Connect, and it pairs UNO students with area companies and organizations to guarantee paid internship positions. This allows students to benefit from paid work experience while pursuing their education.
Nearly 70 employers have pledged to join the Career Connect partnership, guaranteeing students internship positions with Fortune 500 companies, small and large businesses, and nonprofit organizations.
"Students who work as interns have a higher likelihood to become employed by that company,” Li said. “In fact, over 70% of companies hire their interns as full-time employees."
To take part in Career Connect, employers must pledge at least one paid internship position for a UNO student in their organization. The internship program can apply to students in any field of study at UNO; however, in alignment with the state of Nebraska’s workforce needs, the university is particularly focused on filling internship positions with area employers in fields designated by the state as high-wage, high-skill and high-demand occupations.
Internships don’t just benefit the students—they benefit employers, too. Li explained:
"The connection created by paid internships builds stronger bonds to our Omaha community, leading to greater employment and retention in our community after graduation—and ultimately, driving the economy forward."
Preparing Students for the Future
Dr. Levi Thiele, director of career development at UNO, leads a department fully focused on providing resources, assistance and training to students—helping them gain career readiness skills, prepare for internships and successfully transition to full-time careers after graduation.
"If you look at almost any success indicator for students—academic success, time to degree, how long it takes them to search for jobs, what their starting salary is -- all of those indicators are improved by participating in an internship."
Thiele pointed out that research backs up why internships are so beneficial and important for students.
"If you look at success indicators for students—including academic success, time to degree, length of job search and starting salary—all of those indicators are improved by participating in an internship."
When it comes to paid internships, Thiele is a vocal supporter.
"We know that underrepresented students, racial and ethnic minorities, women, and first-generation students are less likely to participate in internships," she said. "In promoting access to paid internships, we hope to increase equity and remove some of the barriers to equal opportunity and participation."
Thiele’s office offers services that prepare students for internships and full-time jobs. Services include training, job search support, resume and interview preparation, career readiness training, mentorship, and meaningful connections with employers.
"All of those things help them to be successful in their applications," she said. Her team also connects students with employers through career fairs and hiring events on campus.
"Employers are eager to gain visibility and connect with students. It’s an impactful way to grow their talent acquisition pipeline."
"Our goal is to provide access for all students to participate in experiential learning," Thiele said. "Students may work with faculty on research projects, study abroad, or volunteer in their community. Paid internships, however, are the gold standard in experiential learning."
Connecting Employers with Future Employees
UNO is the perfect place for employers to connect with their future talent pool, get their name out and help students better understand the options that exist in the workforce.
"Getting an internship is not only about getting paid, but about understanding how to be a professional. Students learn how to prioritize, how to manage time, how to be a responsible person—all while they’re going to college. They figure out how to build mentoring relationships, what kinds of jobs they resonate with, and if they like different company cultures. These are very important things."
"Businesses and other organizations want a gateway to easily find students—and we as a university are that gateway," Li said.
From graduating students to fill open jobs to preparing them for those jobs through internships and volunteering, UNO is helping to build the workforce of the future.
"Interns are no longer making coffee or copies. Internships build an environment for young professionals to be successful," Li said. "During an internship, students figure out how to build mentoring relationships, what kinds of jobs they resonate with and if they like different company cultures. These are very important things."
Ultimately, Li wants to see all UNO students graduate with at least one experiential learning opportunity—but hopefully more. And she hopes to see UNO graduates filling Omaha jobs.
"This is the beginning of a conversation," she said. "We’re looking at the areas we need to improve in; we’re becoming more deliberate and intentional in solving the challenges facing our students and our community of employers."
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