Alma Mater 
In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, George Kuh notes that next to going to class “work is by far the most common activity in which undergraduates take part.”1 At most colleges, campus work is part of financial aid packaging. Challenged by rising costs in recent years, more students are fulfilling their assigned hours.
This fall, 1,650 current Luther students have campus work assignments. Some distinctive areas where students contribute invaluable work include: electronic ad placement and management in Google, Bing and Facebook; support for the photo and video bureaus; web analytics research, CRM management, and technology help desk support. This has prompted us to think about ways to connect campus work with academics in ways that would allow campus employment experiences to contribute to the successful fulfillment of Luther’s goals for student learning.
Thanks to the work of Jon Christy and Nan Hibbs in Luther’s Office of Assessment and Institutional Research, Luther undertook a “connecting work with academics” exploratory study. A sample of 64 students who held work-study positions in dining services, residence life, and information technology comprised the study population.
Work-study supervisors initiated conversations with their student employees utilizing five questions: How is this job fitting with your coursework? What are you learning at work that is helping you in class? What are you learning in class that you can apply at work? How does your work relate to any co-curricular activities in which you are participating? Is your work experience helping you clarify your career aspirations? The interviews were coded according to common themes.
There were 102 statements collected that referred to the value of building relationships, being part of a team, and understanding group dynamics. Students cited that they “work effectively in a group” in music ensembles, athletics, and in various class assignments — experiences which carry over into their work-study assignments.
Nearly half the students interviewed described how their jobs on campus improved communication and time management skills. Evident in the data was a high awareness of the benefits diversity engenders — both demographic diversity and the diversity of opinions and value systems. These students clearly saw advantages in working alongside people they would not necessarily have chosen.
Residence hall assistants spoke of gaining greater self-confidence and experience in the areas of leadership development, handling crises, and managing interpersonal conflicts. Information technology “Help Desk” workers focused on specific skills such as technology knowledge, troubleshooting, and problem-solving.
Even jobs that appear mundane — for example in Dining Services and in Facilities Services—contribute to student success. Recently a job candidate visiting campus commented on the number of students she saw performing custodial duties at Luther. She said that would never happen on her home campus because students would feel such work was “beneath them.” We believe there is great value in sharing the responsibility of creating a vibrant residential community and for students to learn first-hand how hard Luther employees work to meet their needs. In our study, students who worked in these areas commented on learning about workplace roles and relationship dynamics, the demand of physical labor, and time management.
There were surprisingly few negative comments about work. Many students recalled job difficulties but tended to conclude they were valuable life experiences. Being reprimanded for showing up late or having to navigate a personality conflict are “real world” experiences. Successfully solving a problem or determining appropriate courses of action builds confidence.
Statements regarding work-career connections ran the gamut. Whereas some simply appreciated learning a new skill, others changed their major or career direction based on a work-study assignment. Students also appreciated gaining awareness of their personal work style: Do I enjoy helping people? Do I like to tackle tasks alone at a computer?
Luther’s study suggests work opportunities contribute to student success by building tangible skills that will carry forward following graduation as they are applying learning to practical world of work situations and preparing for post-graduation employment. Perhaps work-study leads to institutional success by enhancing retention. We also surmise these directed interviews will make for better and more fulfilled supervisors as they come to recognize the integral role work plays in fulfilling student learning goals. Nearly 77 percent of Luther seniors completing the 2010 College Senior Survey indicated working (for pay) on campus. When this percentage is compared with the similar figure from seventeen colleges that, like Luther, belong to the Higher Education Data Sharing (HEDS) consortium, it is one of the highest.2 We have an opportunity to be more intentional about campus work so that it becomes something to be sought rather than something “I am assigned to do.”
Our institutions can become more intentional about campus work by creating position descriptions for each position, better defining job expectations, and articulating specific skill acquisition associated with each position. Encouraging student workers to take time to reflect on what they are doing, learning, and acquiring and how those experiences connect to academics and beyond can strengthen campus community esprit de corps and the successful fulfillment of campus learning goals.
Richard L. Torgerson, President
Luther College, Decorah, Iowa
1 Kuh, George D. (2010). Maybe Experience Really Can Be the Best Teacher. The Chronicle of Higher Education, Commentary, November 21, 2010.
2 Responding to the question, “During the past year, how much time did you spend during a typical week working (for pay) on campus?” (completed by 47 percent of Luther senior students). Figures from Student Employment show 74 percent of Luther students worked for pay during the 2010-11 school year.