Since becoming head of Elizabethtown College's business department in the fall, Sylvester Williams has started a range of initiatives with a singular goal: Giving students a wealth of practical experience.
To that end, Williams is reaching out to local chambers of commerce and individual businesses big and small. Business is the largest department at Elizabethtown, with nearly 400 students, so he is casting his net wide.
"In the classroom, that's where they get the framework," Williams says. "But the company provides them the opportunity to take that framework and use it. That's the experiential learning part."
The plan starts in students' first semester, as they begin working with advisers to build e-portfolios by setting up objectives for their classes, projects, internships, research and careers. At the same time, they take Williams' Introduction to Business class, in which groups of students are assigned to help fledgling local companies at no cost.
This fall, one of those businesses was Shoppes on Market, a branch of Jewel David Ministries Inc. that opened its doors partway through the semester and gave one team a chance to literally get its hands dirty.
"I really appreciate practical learning experience, especially when hiring people," Jewel David founder Dolores Reidenbach says. Scraping wallpaper and filling trash containers isn't glamorous, she says, but it's a real part of opening a business.
Reidenbach sees ways to improve the program in the future, but she would be willing to participate again and give students a chance to experience some other, more creative, aspect of business life.
"Overall, it was quite successful for businesses," says Ramon Escudero, executive director of the Elizabethtown Area Chamber of Commerce.
Williams' vision fit in nicely with his own desire to arrange more mutually beneficial partnerships, Escudero says, and will help students become more familiar with and employable at local businesses.
Williams envisions the real-world projects as part of many classes throughout a student's years at the college, whether it's helping a business with a marketing survey or crafting a plan to open a new division. He also wants to get more upperclassmen doing internships at local businesses, which is encouraged but not mandatory; the department recently hired someone specifically to handle those arrangements.
Richard W. Dennis, president of Die-Tech Inc., says two Elizabethtown students recently started internships there on a business development project. He believes the outside perspective the students will bring to the job is valuable, and he's also keen on the prospect of acquainting more future business leaders with Die-Tech's manufacturing operations.
"It's creating an infrastructure for someone to say, 'Hey, I worked for a metal stamping company, and it wasn't a dirty little hellhole,'" Dennis says.
Die-Tech also is participating in a business advisory panel at the college, and Dennis is scheduled to speak in the college's new executive lecture series. Started in the fall and sponsored by M&M Mars, the series brings about 15 executives per semester to campus.
"They can provide an overview of their company, the career path they've had, opportunities available, skills needed to be successful in today's world," says Carl Freeman, site director for the M&M Mars Elizabethtown plant. "It also, from a development standpoint, gives the students the opportunity to network a bit in small groups afterward."
The lectures are open to the public, with videotaped sessions available on the college's website, and students are required to write papers about them.
Fulton Financial Corp. is another business that has chosen to partner in many of the college's new real-world experience initiatives. Among other things, Fulton is sponsoring a freshman lunch focusing on career opportunities and changes in the financial industry that students should understand.
"These joint initiatives serve both to enhance the undergraduate experience as we prepare our students for purposeful life work and to provide a well-educated workforce that combines the rich liberal arts education with the professional technical education that delivers well-rounded career professionals to our corporation," says James Shreiner, Fulton senior executive vice president.
Williams also wants to foster a stronger bond between the business students as a class, and to that end he is planning to introduce a learning community — a freshman dormitory with only business students. The college already has similar communities for two other degree programs, Williams says, and about half of the physics and engineering sophomores elect to stay in their communities.
"What we're doing is immersing them in business so they can see what business is, the different types of businesses, what it means to be a business leader," Williams says. "If you never have that exposure — you just go through school and have the books, but you never really get exposed to what's really out there — it's almost a little bit of a surprise when you actually go get your first job.
"But, if you have all of this experience and then you go work with somebody, you won't be surprised by the things you might have to do."