Connecting research to practice

The Applied HRM Service Learning Externship Team with its advisor. The team continues HR management outreach to non-profit organizations this semester. From left: Alexa Thurmes; Advisor Christa Kiersch; Ashley Smits; Kaitlyn Robbeloth; Jenna Lee and Morgan Brzank. The team earned an undergraduate research grant to continue their work during the spring 2020 semester.

Students work on solutions to regional, non-profit human resources management challenges

UWL Associate Professor Christa Kiersch and student Kaitlyn Robbeloth stepped in front of a Great Rivers United Way Directors meeting this summer to tell area non-profit leaders about a project a UWL group is working on to help them. 

From The Parenting Place to The Salvation Army to The Boys & Girls Club of Greater La Crosse, Kiersch recalls the impact of seeing these leaders all in the same room together.

“This group of organizations does so much good for the community,” she says.

Now Kiersch and UWL students in her Human Resources Management classes are working to help these organizations do even better.

Students in two sections of Kiersch’s MGT 385: Human Resources Management collaborated on teams to address non-profit human resources challenges in partnership with Great Rivers United Way during the spring 2019 semester. They presented final reports at semester’s end to stakeholders, including Great Rivers United Way’s Community Impact Director Liz Evans.

Evans says hearing students’ presentations was an opportunity to step back from the busy, day-to-day operations and take a look at the some of these issues in more detail — such as challenges with finding and retaining staff or building effective training processes. Having the staff resources and time to investigate them is a challenge for non-profits as many don’t have even one full-time staff person dedicated to HR.

Now a group of five students selected from Kiersch’s spring semester class is building on the initial research of their classmates throughout the 2019-20 academic year. The group — the Applied HRM Service Learning Externship Team — aims to provide an overall needs analysis and research-based tools for Great Rivers United Way partners to address their specific HR needs.

Their work is the Wisconsin Idea in action, the UW principle that university education should influence people’s lives beyond classroom walls. UWL is engaging with  community partners in many ways. Learn how to partner with UWL and support experiential learning below.

The skills students build through applied-research experiences like this include teamwork, critical thinking, communication, leadership and more. “Basically they build skills employers continually tell us they need,” explains Kiersch, who is now advising the externship team.

Students say the class project has pushed them to research and write reports at a high level, so they can provide accurate, reliable and meaningful information to organizations. Instead of relying on Google, they conducted interviews with non-profit leaders, researched the landscape of regional non-profits to better understand their specific challenges and delved into academic search engines and other reliable sources to find evidence-based practices, tools, and processes to address them.

They gained new skillsets such as boiling down complex information into concise, digestible pieces, weeding out unreliable information, and presenting their findings to real clients, they said.

Two sections of MGT 385 (Human Resource Management) students worked on 16 course-embedded, team projects in partnership with the Great Rivers United Way (GRUW) and their associated nonprofit organizations such as WAFER, The Salvation Army, and The Boys & Girls Club of Greater La Crosse, during the spring 2019 semester. Here a student presents to Great Rivers United Way’s Community Impact Director Liz Evans and others.

For some, the project made it clear that HR is in their future.

Senior Jenna Lee says taking the class helped her bring fresh ideas into her HR internship at Drexel Building Supply in her hometown this past summer. Now hired to begin a full-time position in HR with the company after her May 2020 graduation, she looks forward to sharing more. “This experience opened my eyes to the theories — to what works and what doesn’t,” she says. “I was able to offer suggestions to the head of HR.”

Ashley Smits was also able to apply what she learned in class to a summer internship with Associated Bank. Although not in HR, she said the same work, researching best practices and communicating information applied to the work she was doing for the company related to branding and website changes.

Smits likes that the project has them working with real people with the potential to change real lives. The students also said they became more aware of non-profit organizations and the important work they do.

“I have deep-seated belief that my role as an educator is to provide students more than preparation for careers, but also to help them develop as humans and community members,” says Kiersch.  “I want them to take their growing skills and make a positive impact in their communities and for other people.”

Partners support service learning

The project was initiated through collaborations with the UWL Foundation and generous donors, as well as UWL’s Office of Undergraduate Research & Creativity. In summer 2018 the local business Advisors Management Group (AMG) began working with UWL Foundation Officer Jay Scott and UWL Professor Emeritus Ron Rada to support experiential learning through UWL’s Margins of Excellence initiative.  AMG established an endowment that will provide a financial stipend to students on the externship team.

Jenna Deets, chief compliance officer for AMG, says a conversation with Rada and his wife, Jane, two clients of AMG with a history of financial support for experiential learning at UWL, initially got AMG’s management team excited about how their company could make a big mark on the lives of students and the wider La Crosse community with a gift. The La Crosse-based company had seen first-hand the benefits of college students learning through experiences while serving others. In fact, Deets was AMG’s first intern. A finance major, she graduated in 2003 after working at AMG during her last two years at UWL.

“I was able to see how the excellent education I got at UWL was applied,” says Deets. “At age 22, I feel I was further ahead had I not had that opportunity. When I graduated, I was able to hit the ground running.”

Students on the Applied HRM Service Learning Externship Team presented their work to Advisors Management Group fall semester. AMG established an endowment that will provide a financial stipend to students on the team.

Now the company has 10-12 interns a year. By supporting this new experiential learning opportunity, AMG is able to provide even more students the opportunity to apply theory learned in the classroom to practice in the field and ultimately get a leg up before they start their career.

“We just really liked the idea of being part of something bigger than us,” says Deets. “And it can multiply, and other organizations can become a part of the project whether contributing or benefiting.”

The gift aligns with AMG’s mission to impact how the financial services industry does business with its communities. AMG management believes their success is a consequence of not just the advice they give to clients, but their service to the community.

“We are very blessed to be able to do this, and we feel it is something we should do as a result of our mission to serve other people,” says Deets. “If another organization in the city hears about this and decides they want to do it too, that is exciting to us.”

Want to partner with UWL?

If you have a project and would like to partner with UWL students and faculty, visit UWL’s Community Partnership Portal https://www.uwlax.edu/info/community-portal/ to learn more about internship, volunteer, and undergraduate research opportunities.

If you are interested in financially supporting experiential learning opportunities for UWL students in the future, contact the UWL Foundation at foundation@uwlax.edu or 877.895.3863