Cans, Computer and Costumes
By Bryan Hearn ′09
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
Before my first day as a Rhodes Student Associate (RSA) in the Communications Office, I learned that the RSA before me, Sara Rutherford Ferguson ’07, was a published author. The bar was set high.
When I arrived for my first day on the job in August 2007, I quickly learned the kinds of assignments student writers have: press releases to the Memphis community; news items for the Rhodes Web site such as faculty profiles for the Dean’s Blog and Faces of Rhodes, which features profiles of outstanding students, many of whom are also RSAs; and writing for Rhodes magazine. I began to recognize then the degree to which Rhodes trusts its students, especially its Student Associates, with major projects and responsibilities.
But above all, I was thankful for, and at the same time astonished by, the fact that Rhodes lets its students choose how they want to contribute to the college. For us RSAs in the Communications Office, we all chose our jobs, interviewed for them and were accepted because of our interest in writing. It was a perfect match.
And so we “Rhodents” have the freedom, I’ve learned, to craft not only our academic experience in the liberal arts, but also our student employment possibilities. Like most initiatives at Rhodes, the student employment program is, well, student-centered. The Rhodes Student Associate Program (RSAP), developed in 2004, has supplemented students’ employment options on campus. Employing students as junior-level staff members, it pays them $10 per hour and above while encouraging them to spearhead major projects and tackle challenging assignments.
There are literally hundreds of choices of campus jobs available for students. Rhodes offers 600 work-study positions and more than 100 Student Associate positions in more than 40 offices and departments on campus.
Whether they choose an internship at the Memphis Zoo or Morgan Keegan, or a work-study job in the Department of Gender and Sexuality Studies on campus, or a Student Associate position for the Crossroads to Freedom digital archive project, Rhodes students are able to decide how they want to spend their hours outside of class, and are able to defray their college expenses at the same time.
Shannon King ’09, a Theatre major, chose to work in the McCoy Theatre costume shop designing and constructing costumes for McCoy’s productions. If you ask her, King will tell you she had one of the “coolest and most creative jobs on campus.”
Lucas Warth ’09, a Religious Studies major and Business Administration minor, chose to work as a Student Associate in Physical Plant. With the help of his supervisor, associate director of Physical Plant Tracy Adkisson ’95 (did I mention the great professional mentors RSAs have?), Warth spearheaded the recycling program on campus.
In developing the program, Warth and Adkisson wanted to change the way people in the Rhodes community look at their trash.
“We wanted to make recycling as common as throwing things away,” he says.
Adkisson also supervises two other student employees: Billy George ’10 and Camielle Smith ’09. They and Warth do everything from emptying the recycling bins to making strategic decisions.
“We’re working almost all the time, doing a physically demanding and often dirty job,” says George. “But that’s fulfilling,” he adds. (George also chose to be a work-study in Physical Plant because he got to know some of the workers through a stint on “the paint crew” over the summer.)
No two RSAP experiences are the same. In Warth’s case, he was presented with a major challenge: How does one start a recycling plan from scratch? With the help of Adkisson, Warth spoke often with contractors, chairs of academic departments and various offices, both on campus and off, to help the project come to fruition. He set the locations of the bins, and once the program started, the bins miraculously began filling up with plastic bottles, paper and aluminum cans.
Thanks to the strategic planning of Warth and Adkisson, and George’s and Smith’s hard work behind the scenes, everyone on campus now has the ability to recycle.
“Regardless of whether you hug trees or could care less about the environment, it’s pretty simple to recycle when there are bins everywhere you look,” George says.
Warth says he not only improved his communication and professional skills, but also learned about organizational development and strategic planning. He says his job made his time at Rhodes “a more well-rounded experience.” Plus, he believes it helped him “articulate a challenging professional experience” when he applied to graduate school at Colorado State University, where he will pursue a master’s degree in accounting in the fall.
The Student Associate program is regarded as a mutually beneficial partnership, and rightly so.
Career Services director Sandi George Tracy says that RSAs and work-study students bring a “fresh perspective” to offices and departments on campus.
Elizabeth Welch ’09, Student Associate in the Financial Aid Office and the coordinator of the RSAP, agrees.
“I think the departments and offices on campus have definitely seen the benefits of the program,” she says.
Welch has worked with her supervisor, Ashley Bianchi, to expand and develop the RSAP. Welch oversees the day-to-day operations of the program, in addition to scheduling receptions at the president’s house each semester and organizing a speaker series for RSAs in which professionals give students advice on career planning. Welch says the retention rate for returning Rhodes Student Associates is 99%.
The idea for the Student Associate Program, fittingly, came from a student. J. R. Tarabocchia ’03, a Student Government representative, suggested it as a way to provide students meaningful work experiences that would translate to the “real world ” while helping make college more affordable for many of them. The program’s success soon revealed another serendipitous side—because the students are so talented at what they do, their contributions in various campus offices have helped to control costs and increase productivity.
In its first year, 2004, there were 21 RSAs. Now there are 111 positions. That almost 500% growth over five years has surpassed the program’s original goals. And if that weren’t enough, the RSAP has become a sought-after program across the landscape of higher education, as numerous other institutions are interested in starting similar initiatives.
Back on campus, the program has helped Rhodes become an even more close-knit community, if that’s possible. For example, Lucas Warth says his job in Physical Plant caused him to “feel more connected” to the college.
Whitney Faust ’10 in the Development Office, where she helps manage planned gifts, says that her job has shown her “how dedicated many alumni are to Rhodes.”
Elizabeth Welch would agree: “On-campus employment opportunities help students feel like they have a stake in the college’s development,” she says.
The program has also enhanced networking and career opportunities for students. Sandi George Tracy claims that it “is one of the best ways for students to gain meaningful professional skills, whether they plan to go to graduate school or the world of work.” In fact, Rhodes alumni agree with Tracy’s claim that RSAs gain experience that is transferable to the workplace. Their career paths prove it.
Rachel Thompson ’08, for example, says her experience as a RSA helped her discover a practical application—Web design—for her major in Art. During her first year as a Student Associate, Thompson performed a “complete overhaul” of the Web site for the British Studies at Oxford summer study abroad program. She had no Web editing experience, but her supervisor, English professor and dean of British Studies Michael Leslie, who holds the Connie Abston Chair of Literature, helped her learn the basics through a couple of books he purchased. Thompson says she honed her Web skills while discerning her interest in information architecture.
She continued building those skills a year later, working on projects for the Rhodes Web site as a Student Associate for the Communications Office. And, just as in her junior year, she had a mentor. When Thompson began looking for postgraduation jobs in the spring, Christina Huntington ’95, associate director of Communications, helped her determine what positions she wanted to pursue and worked to make sure she had the relevant experience necessary to achieve them. Now Thompson works as the managing editor of HopeandHealing.org, a new ministry of the Church Health Center in Memphis.
“Each day at work is a creative process, and each day I rely on the skills and experiences learned while working in the RSA program,” Thompson says.
Current Rhodes Student Associates, especially 2009 graduates, reflect on how their employment opportunities at Rhodes will benefit them in the workplace and in graduate school.
Matt Becker ’09, an Economics major, began working as a peer tutor in the Department of Economics and Business during the first semester of his junior year. (Peer tutors are also available in Biology, Business, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, German, Mathematics, Physics, Russian and Spanish. Five peer tutors also staff the campus Writing Center.) Becker says his experiences have helped him hone his economics abilities as well as his pedagogical skills.
“When you have to teach something to others, you have to know it backward and forward,” he says.
He tutored an Economics 101 class for one semester and Managerial Economics for three semesters. Becker plans to move to China and take Chinese language classes before pursuing his MBA.
Whitney Faust, an International Business major, says that she knows her experience since 2007 will serve her well in finding a career after graduation. Her job, she says, “has allowed me to apply what I learned in the classroom in a real world setting.”
So no matter whether students choose to do recycling, Web design, costume construction or writing, their academic studies along with the on-the-job skills and experience they gain while greatly contributing their talents to the college will stay with them for many years after Rhodes.