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Creating Pathways for Student Engagement

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Office of Public Policy Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School
October 12, 2018

In a 2014 survey of freshmen students, 82.2 percent felt it was “very important” to learn about topics of interest during their time in college, while 77.1 percent felt it was “very important” to get training for a specific career. As we work to prepare students for careers in the public service, it’s important that we offer students opportunities not only to learn about important topics, but also to engage in policymaking work outside of the traditional classroom setting.

At the Wilder School’s Office of Public Policy Outreach (OPPO), we approach student engagement as a way to bridge academic and policymaking settings. We not only want our students to learn more during their time here, but we also want to ensure that they are competitive on the job market and that they have the skills needed to excel in their careers.

One way we provide these opportunities is through serving as a host organization for the Wilder Fellowships program. In the program, students receive a stipend in exchange for their work. Fellows take on a variety of assignments with nonprofits, government agencies, businesses and, as is described by Wilder Fellow Aleigh Faulk below, different divisions around the university. In her first month as a Fellow, Faulk worked with OPPO faculty and staff on a variety of tasks, including helping to organize a “mental health mini-university” in September. She also assisted with event planning (e.g. organizing a field trip for homeschool students to learn about the OPPO and planning a policymaking workshop for Girl Scouts) and helping our programs obtain SWaM certification.

“Having the opportunity to gain firsthand experience of the necessary processes that contribute to well-informed decision-making in politics and applying that to my studies as a MPA student is incredibly educational and constructive,” said Faulk, “I have learned more about political engagement and how I can apply myself within my future career than I could have learned just through my lessons in the classroom. These experiences have not only exposed me to lessons on the political process, but they have given me the opportunity to work alongside some of the most intelligent, well-rounded individuals in the field. They have helped me develop as a student, as a leader, and, more notably, as a person. Without their daily encouragement and assistance, I would not learn half as much of what I have learned thus far.”

As Shajuana Isom-Payne, the Wilder School’s Assistant Dean of Student Services, describes, this type of Fellowship yields benefits for both students and the agencies with which they work.

“The Wilder Fellowship is designed to be mutually beneficial to both the student and host employer,” said Isom-Payne, “This is not merely an assisting experience. We want it to be an integrated, immersive assignment… They are members of their host employer’s staff who can be called upon to produce meaningful deliverables. In return, they get a sense of what the real world is like and the chance to do a deep dive into public service and better understand practitioner issues.”

We also host students as interns, including persons from other schools within the university, as well as local high school students. In some cases these students create a formal arrangement with a faculty member or department and receive class credit for their work. Others want to gain experience in a less formalized manner may serve as voluntary interns. In these cases, the student chooses what type of work they would like to complete as well as how much time they would like to commit.

In all instances, we work to ensure the internship opportunities we provide are shaped to match the unique needs of each students and we ask students to let us know what opportunities are of most interest to them. Examples of such intern driven projects include a graduate student who has helped identify community organizations that may be interested in learning more about the OPPO, and an undergraduate student who is helping staff members develop an “equity and inclusion” curriculum for our Land Use Education Program.

As noted, our internships are not limited to university students. Local high school students interested in entering the field of public policy and administration have also worked with us to learn more about potential career options. For example, Kate McCullough, of nearby Maggie Walker High School, is writing policy snapshots this fall using findings from our poll data that are sent out to policymakers, academics, and other interested individuals. As McCullough and other students move forward with their internships, we will continue to tailor their projects to match their interests and goals.

Engagement outside the classroom allows students to develop their skills, gain new opportunities and contribute to their universities and communities. Though creating opportunities for student engagement involves time and resources, universities, faculty and staff, communities and, most importantly, students have much to gain.

Author: The Office of Public Policy Outreach is part of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University’s L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The office prepares VCU faculty for effective interactions with state and local lawmakers and helps generate and translate academic knowledge into successful public policies for the commonwealth. Email address: [email protected] | Twitter handle: @OPPOatVCU

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