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By Selena Fragassi

 

One of the benefits of hosting an event on campus is the number of students that can be added resources for planning, coordinating and just about everything else.

Welcome to the Real World. There is no phrase more ubiquitous for college students come graduation day. Yet the real world, the real working world at least, is in fact where the many students, who are valued employees within college and university conference services departments, have been living.

“Students are quite literally the front line of our office,” admits Mari Gorda, registration and operations manager of conference services at Atlanta’s Georgia Institute of Technology. Here they are responsible for answering calls, filing, checking guests in and out, event setup and A/V preparation, inventory tracking and campus tours. “It’s hard to list them all,” Gorda says of the many responsibilities her students have in helping orchestrate the meetings, events and conferences that come to campus.

At the University of Maryland in College Park, it’s even more of an organized operation says Tom Flynn, senior associate director of conferences and visitor services. “We don’t consider students extra help per say since we have a whole staff structure where they all have job descriptions and responsibilities to uphold,” he says. This network has been in place since 1985 and hires about 65-70 people per summer (and another 5-10 during the school year).

Student employees at the University of Maryland can focus on one of three tracks, including housing operations (turning resident life to conference accommodations), program management (working directly with clients to coordinate services and facilities) or operations (daily items like housekeeping and linens). Titles range from assistant manager to supervisors or specialists for entry-level positions. The students are paid for their work but the real benefit, says Flynn, is the para-professional experience they receive. “We are developing students to prepare them for life after college. That’s why they have job descriptions, receive evaluations and get assistance in putting together their résumés.”

Creating The Student Union
Cassey Wyatt, a recent graduate for Brenau University in Gainesville, Georgia, is one example. As a summer coordinator, she received work-study hours for her help in coordinating events on campus, the most prominent a 135-person fundraising gala and a barbecue for a 500-person youth group. Although Wyatt was a student in the university’s music department, the life and work skills she has gained from her experience helping events are invaluable, she says. “It helped me to solidify the areas I wanted to focus on in applying for jobs. I started looking into special events programs and my experience really helped me organize and focus on the kind of job I wanted to pursue after.”

While Flynn says the University of Maryland also does not have a dedicated hospitality program from which to pull candidates (“it’s more of a recruitment campaign for all undergrads”), others like Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts give students in this field of study a wealth of heavy experiential opportunities. “Our student employees are almost always from the UMASS Amherst Hospitality Program so they gain a great deal of real world job experience; we include them in every facet or aspect of the event industry,” says Kate Fields, assistant director of sales and marketing for Hampshire. “We train them to shadow all of our activities and hold them responsible to execute their own events when they are ready to do so.”

Derek Emerson, director of events and conferences at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, would agree. “Students grow a great deal in these opportunities because we give them decision-making work and develop their problem-solving skills,” he says. However, having the extra hands is a bilateral bonus, also helping expand his department. “Since our professional staff is not likely to grow much, students allow us to continue to improve in what we offer without cutting corners.” The numbers can be staggering in the summer months, too, he says, with 10-12 full-time (and a number of part-time) student workers overseeing 40 conferences and 15,000 guests in a short span of time. Duties range from selling tickets and ushering to running the scoreboard for sports camps, handling A/V and lighting needs, selling merchandise, escorting guest speakers, compiling data and so on. “We find a lot of our guests like working with our students and we receive a number of compliments on how good they are at their jobs,” Emerson admits.

“We love the energy and enthusiasm show by our student staff to our conference guests,” seconds Flynn. “They love interacting with the individuals and groups coming to campus and they are willing to work hard to accomplish goals.”

Lessons To Be Learned
At the end of the day, these are young adults in their early 20s, so there are some challenges to be had. “Students are students so sometimes they are not as responsible as we would like,” says Emerson. “However, when we hire students, we tend to entrust them with small items first and then increase responsibilities as they go. We expect mistakes, and we work on educating students about them.”

There is no one learning curve for creating a professional, says Fields who on a few occasions has had to address appropriate attire and the importance of timeliness. At Georgia Tech, Gorda finds the greatest challenge in the training process. “There are very few students who join our staff that have had previous event experience so it can take a couple of weeks to get them oriented.”

Especially in that tight time period between the end of the school year and the ramp up of the summer conference season, says Flynn. Yet he and his staff believe in giving students a lot of autonomy in their training. “Sometimes they are the only ones on-site, but they know to call us if we are needed to be pulled into the situation. They have to weigh each situation separately, but really that’s the only way they’ll learn to survive in this fast-paced environment.”

What You’re Investing
Okay so you’re doing a good deed helping to develop incoming colleagues to the industry and getting extra help in the process, but the bottom line for you might be the costs involved. In all the representatives we talked to, they said the cost of hiring student workers is the campus’ burden and not yours, so you can consider it an extension of the services and staffing that the school would already provide.

“Although recruiting, hiring, training and supervising students requires time and money, for us, we see it as part of the educational mission of our college, so it is time well invested. Plus, as the students become more independent they can help us expand in what we can do for our guests,” says Emerson, pointing out one very clear example of how a student went above and beyond the call of duty. “We were in the midst of a severe thunderstorm, and one of the high schoolers from our youth camp headed to our dining space terrified of the activity outside. One of our student workers noticed her and took the girl aside, found towels to wrap her in and comforted her for nearly an hour. This allowed the rest of the youth group to continue on with their day, and let the client know that we truly think of every one of our guests as a gift.”


Get Connected

Brenau University
UniqueVenues.com/brenau
(770) 531.3122

Georgia Institute of Technology
UniqueVenues.com/georgiatech
(404) 894.6675

Hampshire College
UniqueVenues.com/HampshireCollege
(413) 559.5610

Hope College
UniqueVenues.com/HopeCollege
(616) 395.7222

University of Maryland
UniqueVenues.com/umcollegepark
(301) 314.7884
 
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