At Fort Valley State University, the iHelp Program is helping students develop some of the most critical skills they’ll need for future employment even as they serve the community.
Through the newly formed Office of Civic Engagement, Leadership, and Professional Development, students are not only connected to volunteer opportunities in the surrounding communities, but they are also provided with mentoring and professional development training as well.
“All of this is creating holistic students, because we are not just concerned about academic degrees,” said LuWanna Williams, who oversees the new office. “It is worthless if you don’t know how to go into a job and keep it, and if you don’t know how to be pleasant and work as a team.”
Through the iHelp Program, Williams and her office are strategically working to identify local opportunities for students to receive critical hands-on training and internships in places that need reliable and trained volunteers, like schools and hospice centers.
“We are building partnerships, where on the one hand, we let a business know that we will give them student volunteers, but on the other, we also ask them to extend to us an offer of internships,” she said. “For example, we are able to offer student internships at the Hospice Care of Warner Robins to our social work majors. That is the type of relationship we are trying to build with all our partners.”
The iHelp Program provides students with opportunities to give back through community cleanup efforts, food drives, and serving meals at homeless shelters, and FVSU has placed emphasis on providing students with opportunities to improve their soft skills at the same time.
“We are responding to a need in the community where leaders have shared that they need students to have better soft skills,” Williams said, alluding to proficiency like having a strong work ethic, positive attitude, good time management, being a team player, and being able to receive feedback and criticism.
“I was in a chamber of commerce meeting where one of the speakers asked everybody in the room who had positions they couldn’t fill to raise their hands, and at least 20 hands went up,” Williams said. “They are having problems with potential employees who don’t understand the workplace dynamics. We’ve missed a whole generation of cultivating students for the workforce.”
The problem is so severe, Williams said, that business leaders have resorted to creating their own programs to teach new hires skills like professionalism, proper business attire, common courtesy, and sending business emails.
Shifting the focus of campus volunteerism efforts to better support the surrounding communities with consistently well-trained students has also meant changing practices and attitudes both on and off campus,” Williams said. iHelp is now the hub for all campus volunteering efforts, for example.
“That means changing mindsets so organizations don’t just go out and build a Habitat for Humanity house without training, for example,” Williams said. “We’ve created a training program for our students because one of the complaints was that students would show up for one day, not show up for the next, and not really understand the scope of service. Many only wanted the volunteer hours. Now, all students have to come through us.”
All incoming freshmen are now required to have 120 hours of service, internships, or job shadowing to graduate. Williams said because of the new requirement, she has already witnessed a change in how involved the freshman class has been on campus.
“The 500 students who started this fall have been trained and are actively involved in volunteerism,” Williams said. “And statistics show that students who are more engaged are less likely to leave your institution. The freshman class members are active and involved in everything on campus. They are excited and hyped about Fort Valley State, and there is nothing you can ask that they won’t participate in.”
The community has responded positively to the changes as well, she said.
“The people in the community have been absolutely wonderful about embracing the changes,” Williams said. “They wholeheartedly agree that this has been a need.
One of the other challenges in shifting the campus culture, Williams said, has been in securing buy-in on the one- stop-shop concept for student internships and mentoring opportunities. One of the most significant improvements has been in adding all the training opportunities into a searchable computer database for the students.
“Often the professors have the relationships that lead to internship opportunities, but too often, information is not shared and the students are forced to figure things out on their own,” Williams said. “Now students can create an online profile and automatically apply for internships on the computer.”
Williams said that despite the hurdles, she is seeing the needle move forward. Her next goal, she said, is to marshal additional resources, add more staffers as the program grows, and provide transportation to help students attend off-campus opportunities.
“We’ve been able to take some students to events like the Read for the Record at an elementary school in vans and buses,” she said. “But we now have new relationships in areas like Macon.”
Some of the partners, however, are so invested in the program’s success that they pick up volunteering students twice a week.
“We’re getting calls for meetings and businesses requesting volunteers every day,” said Williams.