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Five years ago, the career services office and the community partnerships department at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology (TCSPP) partnered on a program that provides students with part-time jobs to support themselves while gaining experience they can directly apply to their degrees.

“As our students are working through college, we know it’s sometimes hard for them to get key experience that applies to their careers,” says Julie Bechtold, career services director. “The program bonus is that it also meets the needs of the underserved in our local community.”

TCSPP is a professional graduate school with master’s and doctoral programs. Most of its 1,400-plus students come directly from undergraduate programs and have little “real-world” work experience. Bechtold notes that, since undergraduate psychology and social work majors typically go on to graduate school, most never used career services as undergraduates. Therefore, students face several obstacles in their job search, including knowing how to leverage past work experiences; cognitively recognizing current skills and education; and needing to work, but needing work that is related to their first professional career-related job.

“Unless they’re in the doctoral program, we only have two years get them up, ready, and out the door prepared to be engaged professionals and purposeful agents of change,” Bechtold says.

The community partnerships department was a natural fit to partner with on an initiative to gain valuable work experience because it provides students with three gateways into the community: community service, community-based research, and service learning.

During the first week of school, the two offices jointly hold their job and volunteer fair, during which students can meet and network with representatives of local, community-based organizations seeking part-time assistance. Some examples of the types of work students can apply for include tutoring bilingual children (community service); analyzing research and assisting the organization in implementing programs based on that research (community-based research); and conducting chart reviews at an outpatient mental health center (service learning).

There are eight goals of the program:

  1. Identify sites that are easily accessible—Based on students’ addresses, the career center/community partnerships initiative has developed sites either in students’ neighborhoods or that are accessible by public transportation.
  2. Offer flexible work schedules—The initiative’s staff developed projects that require between two and 20 hours per week.
  3. Identify people to assist with workload—The staff enlisted student leaders to liaise between the school and the site, and facilitate reflective discussions.
  4. Teach sites how to use psychology students—The career center/community partnerships initiative hosted a partners’ luncheon to explain TCSPP’s psychology programs, provide examples of how to use students from each program, and offer student testimonials. Career center/community partnerships staff members have also developed a community partner handbook.
  5. Recruit students—Career center/community partnerships staff members hosted the job and volunteer fair and developed meaningful work opportunities for students involved in the program.
  6. Get faculty involved— Career center/community partnerships staff members identified enthusiastic faculty members, obtained institutional and departmental support, offered incentives (faculty grants to cover overage, release time, and more), and showed appreciation.
  7. Strengthen partnerships—Career center/community partnerships staff members created a formal institutional contract and developed personal relationships with site staffs through frequent check-in calls and biannual site visits. In addition, they invited site staffs to on-campus presentations, and assessed their needs and obtained feedback through surveys and meetings.
  8. Improve student reflection—The career center/community partnerships initiative mandated civic conversation sessions, instituted an open-door policy, and conducted surveys to help students see the impact of their experience and assess the effectiveness of the program.

The career center/community partnerships program has connected with more than 60 community partners, and has more than 350 students involved. Eighty-seven percent of first-year students and 38 percent of entire student body is involved in the program. In 2008-09, TCSPP students worked 38,000 hours of community service through the program; in 2009-10, that number swelled to 50,000.

“We have seen several student outcomes,” explains Jill Glenn, director of TCSPP’s community partnerships department. “Our students have gained relevant experience by working in the community, had exposure to populations and agencies they may work with in the future, and received hands-on practical training that applies to their coursework.”