On-campus jobs tend to be born from necessity, largely transactional, and not viewed as particularly meaningful. But what if brewing coffee in the campus cafe, or making calls in the development office, could be supported by mentors and learning modules that made these experiences an integral part of students’ educations and careers? At Arizona State University (ASU), a few innovative thinkers started asking that question.

“So many students are engaged in work while they're going to school,” said Brandee Popaden-Smith, director of the Work+ Learn program at ASU. “How do we help those students get every bit that they can out of that experience?” 

Students may work because they need to, says Popaden-Smith, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t gain high-quality employment experience in the process.  She and her team imagined student employment could be fulfilling in more ways than one—not only for the coinciding paycheck, but for providing students critical professional development skills and complimenting their studies in the classroom.  

In 2020, Work+ was piloted and then developed at ASU’s University College as an initiative supporting student success. Focused on students currently employed by the university, Work+ is, at a minimum, a win-win strategy to help busy student-employees get the most out of their dual roles.  At its core, it’s about equity and access. 

Around 40% of full-time college students and closer to three-quarters of part-time students in the U.S. are “working learners,” or those employed during the school year as they complete their degrees. The majority are lower-income or first generation students. At ASU, the largest public university in the country, 35% of their approximately 140,000 students (undergraduate and graduate) are the first in their families to go to college. Around 11,000 are working learners, teeing Work+ up to be a program with wide-reaching impact, both locally and nationally. 

Work+ offers several online modules, or “levels,” for student employees to gain critical career skills and contemplate professional pathways. This content responds in part to the 2019 study from Gallup and Bates College, “Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work: The Role of Higher Education,” which suggests students who participate in a course or program encouraging them to think about pursuing meaning in their work are more likely to secure this type of employment. The same research established a positive correlation between college graduates who find purpose in their work and their overall well-being.

Sukhwant Jhaj is ASU’s vice provost for Academic Innovation and Student Achievement and is the point person on the project for ASU Provost Nancy Gonzales. “I focus on issues of institutional strategy as they connect with questions of academic innovation and student success,” Jhaj said. “Things like, “What's next?’”

According to Jhaj, Work+ targets three questions, with a particular focus on the second. “How do you end achievement disparities that exist? How might we redesign for an integrated work and learning future? And how might we design services using design thinking analytics?” These objectives then align with the larger university’s charter, which emphasizes not only academic excellence and innovation as a research institution, but the fundamental importance of access and inclusion to that end.

Part of this accessibility mission is to elevate on-campus work to the status of the often-sought-after-but-less-widely-available internship. “For a long time, internships were kind of the main high value work experience that students could get while they were pursuing their degree program,” said Popaden-Smith. “But they’re not easily scalable, especially for an institution our size where we're trying to ensure that every single learner has these types of opportunities.”

Making work more integral to education also creates a sticking factor for students at risk of stopping out. “When you take a look at our working learner populations broadly across the nation, they’re highly representative of historically marginalized groups, and they are the ones facing the significant barriers to persisting through their educational experience,” said Popaden-Smith. She said programs like Work+ that infuse employment with education help students, who might otherwise be forced to choose one over the other, to stay in school. 

Crystal Woods, a psychology major in her last semester at ASU, said she has appreciated participating in Work+ through her job as an academic peer advisor, especially in anticipation of her upcoming graduation. “I feel like the closer you get to graduating, the harder it gets to really decide what you want to do.” Even though she had amassed plenty of professional experience already, working since she was 16 and often two jobs throughout college, Woods said Work+ modules helped her develop career skills she wouldn’t have known how to approach otherwise. She has taken quizzes to learn more about potential career paths that could suit her and kept a record of all her progress along the way. 

“So many students are engaged in work while they're going to school.  How do we help those students get every bit that they can out of that experience?”

Woods believes ASU offers a supportive environment in general for first-gen students like herself, and engaging with Work+ boosted her confidence further. “Entering school, I never thought I could be doing what I'm doing or getting the grades or even graduating early. And so reflecting back on it, I'm like, ‘Oh my gosh. I did do it as a first-generation [student].” The work experience helped her shift from a deficit to an asset mindset. “I don't walk into interviews as nervous as I was. I kind of walk in [with the attitude of] ‘they need me more than I need them’—even if I really do need them.” 

A critical part of making Work+ effective for students comes down to the role of their employers. Supervisors who engage with Work+ help lead their students through their online modules, providing continuous support and feedback to reinforce the coursework on professional development in practice. These advisors also gain access to a wealth of resources designed to facilitate their own experience, from approaching the hiring process to navigating a mentorship relationship. 

For Kate Armbruster, who is not only a student-employee supervisor but a doctoral student at ASU researching working learners, the impact of student-supervisor relationships is hard to overstate. “This is not just about student employment, student-employees,” Armbruster said of Work+, which she engages with as both a supervisor and researcher. “It's very much about the supervisor, as well, because we need the supervisor to have buy-in and be motivated and understand how important their role is in student success—how much of an impact they have on student employees.”

Crystal Woods attributes much of her progress as a working learner to her boss and mentor, Amanda, who introduced her to Work+ and also comes from a first-generation background. “Since she was the person who encouraged me, I was able to get research opportunities and work in labs, which I didn't even think I was smart enough to do. But here I am.”

As successful as it has been for her, Woods admits Work+ is not always an easy sell for students with little time left in their already-strapped schedules. “I know that when you're already at work and you're a student and you have homework, it's just so much on your mind. Work, work, work. Why would they want to do another sort of work? But it's beneficial at the end of the day.”  That’s what she tells other students.

Meanwhile, Work+ Learn Director Popaden-Smith plans to continue trying to reach as many students as possible, if not all of them, with opportunities Work+ offers. “We're actually in the process, in order to scale to the entirety of the institution, of shifting to, ‘How are the values and how is the framework of Work+ the foundation for all student employment at ASU?” she said. She envisions the larger Work+ philosophy permeating all student employment experiences and benefiting each and every student employee and supervisor.

For Vice Provost Jhaj, the destiny of Work+ extends well beyond his ASU. “We are focused on how we might reimagine the experience of students that we employ and, in doing so, help rethink work-study nationally,” he said.