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Young woman smiles and looks up from her laptop at a colleague in a shared office space.

The University of New Hampshire recently launched Semester for Impact, which pairs students seeking experiential learning opportunities with businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments promoting positive environmental impacts and community well-being in the state.

University of New Hampshire

Many students want career preparation and experiential learning woven into the curriculum, with just over half saying that internships, specifically, should be required, according to the most recent Student Voice survey on preparing for life after college. Separately, nearly six in 10 students who’ve participated in experiential learning of any kind say that it helped them realize what kind of career they want.

Fiona Wilson, deputy chief sustainability officer and director of the Sustainability Institute at the University of New Hampshire, says these and other data suggest that undergraduates still “value a traditional classroom education but see it today as necessary but not sufficient to be effective leaders in the future.” That’s part of why UNH just launched Semester for Impact, which pairs undergraduates seeking high-impact experiential learning with businesses, nonprofit organizations and local governments promoting positive environmental effects and community well-being in New Hampshire.

Real-world problems addressed: Semester for Impact at UNH is starting small, with just four initial participants this term. These include an analytical economics and political science dual major working with New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility to assess how socially responsible businesses impact their communities, as well as a community and environmental planning major working with the city of Manchester to conduct a parking audit of the city’s downtown, which could inform future projects and sustainability initiatives. Yet Wilson expects the program to attract—and train—many more future change makers, as it offers Gen Z and other students the opportunity to help solve big, real-world problems while building professional competencies and other lifelong skills.

While program alumni are of course free to take their newfound skills anywhere after graduation, Wilson and her colleagues also believe Semester for Impact is an investment in the Granite State. That is, students who become involved in their communities via the program may be more likely to remain in New Hampshire.

“We really want to be thinking carefully about, ‘How do we graduate students who are meeting the needs of the workforce and helping [strengthen] our state?’” Wilson says.

Semester for Impact: Student Q&A

Dan Markowski, a community and environmental planning major, is working with the city of Manchester to conduct a parking audit of downtown during his Semester for Impact at the University of New Hampshire. The insights gathered will inform future projects and sustainability initiatives for the city.

Q: Why did you want to be part of Semester for Impact?

A: I stumbled upon a webpage … from UNH’s sustainability website. As part of the degree requirements for my major, community [and] environmental planning, it entails a planning internship. I applied to … Semester for Impact to gain experience but also meet my major requirements. I have always been passionate about planning and thought, “No better way to get real-world experience while not being fully in the field yet.”

Q: How’s it going?

A: It has been great so far. Very interesting experience and has helped me get a sense for what I would like to do from a community [and] environmental planning aspect in the near future.

How it works: Semester for Impact participants will spend roughly four months working 30 hours per week at their respective partner organizations across New Hampshire. Forty percent of this time is devoted to what Wilson calls “front-line” work with the local organization. An additional 40 percent of the time is dedicated to a special project tailored to the student’s and the organization’s interests. The last 20 percent is reserved for job shadowing, in which the student observes others working or is otherwise exposed to professional development through the organization.

A weeklong boot camp of sorts precedes the professional placement, so students can learn about professionalism and plan for success as a cohort. Students take two additional weekly classes throughout the semester. The first, more theoretical course is designed to be a “social innovators’ toolbox,” acquainting students with models for social and environmental change. The second course, offered as a workshop, teaches students how to become problem-solvers.

Wilson explains that latter course as follows: “It’s really focused on things like problem-solving and creative thinking, working in diverse teams, being an excellent communicator in a professional setting—those skills that we know from employers are really important but often don’t get talked about in a single course or even a single major.”

At UNH, Semester for Impact replaces all other coursework for the semester. Students receive credit for four full-time classes, either as electives or within their majors. Host organizations are screened and supervisors trained. Students’ financial aid is applicable to the program. Sophomores and up across all majors are able to apply.

The inspiration: Semester for Impact was inspired by Semester in the City, a Boston-based internship program for which UNH serves as the national institution of record. Semester in the City is a joint project with the College for Social Innovation, and UNH again partnered with the Boston-based organization to design a similar program benefiting students who may not want or be able to travel out of New Hampshire.

“We want to make this kind of experiential learning available to everybody,” Wilson says. Moreover, “If in fact high-quality experiential learning is so transformative, is so pivotal in a student’s education, then why is it only relegated to summers? We wanted to be able to create a semester where that high-quality experiential learning was embedded in within the four-year degree, not in addition to the four-year degree.”

The College for Social Innovation is working with additional colleges and universities interested in building their own local Semester for Impact programs, including the University of Vermont. The group is also recruiting organizations focused on social or environmental change that are interested in hosting a student fellow.

Eric Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of the College for Social Innovation, says he and his colleagues are “excited to continue our long-standing partnership with UNH and introduce the Semester for Impact program, which provides students with the opportunity to contribute significantly to local organizations and earn academic credit while doing so.”

Alex Johnson, director of Semester for Impact at the College for Social Innovation, adds that what he’s hearing most from students so far, based on reflective writing and speaking practice, “is how connected they feel to their community and to their sense of purpose. They are meeting and working with local leaders on problems and issues they care about, and they develop the sense that they are capable of making a difference.”

Is your institution offering experiential learning opportunities in a way that aligns with local workforce needs? If so, we want to hear about it.

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