Learning and Earning

By Helen Watkins Norman
Photography by Justin Fox Burkes


It′s All in a Day′s Work...

 Rhodes junior Caleb Burke is a man of varied talents. A would-be playwright and sometime actor, Burke can juggle basketballs, ride a unicycle with ease and build a stegosaurus out of a dozen latex balloons. But when it comes to landing a post-college job in his field, the ambitious theatre major knows that talent alone will not suffice.

Burke needs on-the-job experience. And he’s getting it thanks to the Rhodes Student Associates Program (RSAP), an earn-as-you-learn student jobs initiative that raises the bar professionally and financially for on-campus employment.

Burke is one of 19 Rhodes students selected this fall to participate in the three-year pilot program. He works in the theater department, assisting the technical director in planning and constructing sets and hanging lights for main stage shows. “I like my job because it’s very much about problem-solving and it’s a lot of responsibility,” says Burke.

According to its organizers, RSAP is unique among collegiate jobs programs in that it aims to provide intellectually challenging jobs that mesh with students’ academic and career goals. Equally critical, it provides competitive wages starting at $10 an hour, helping make a Rhodes education affordable to more students.

Grants from the Mellon Foundation and the Lumina Foundation are helping fund the program. Mellon gave $200,000, with $122,000 going to Rhodes and $78,000 going to Texas’ Southwestern University which Rhodes selected as a partner for the pilot program. The Lumina Foundation gave an additional $155,625 to launch the jobs program.

“The Lumina Foundation’s interest in this study is to find out what Rhodes could do to create a reproducible program, something that could be done again elsewhere with results that would benefit higher education in general,” says Bob Johnson, vice president for information services and a lead organizer of the RSAP initiative.

With the help of the foundations and Rhodes’ existing employment budget, the college created a program offering jobs that pay well but don’t require students to spend extra time and money to get to and from the workplace.

“We’re lowering the cost of getting a job and at the same time making it more lucrative,” says Johnson. “And we’re trying to do it in such a way that the job supports their studies rather than competing with them.”

Senior Caroline Downing, 21, landed a Student Associate position assisting with the work of two professors in her major—economics and business administration. She is doing research with Prof. Teresa Beckham Gramm on the sub-prime mortgage market (for people with low incomes or blemished credit). She’s also working with Prof. Dee Birnbaum on studies examining the role of nurses and how their tasks are perceived.

“I can’t imagine a better job. It’s convenient. I don’t have to battle with traffic or parking,” Downing says. “The most interesting part is to work so closely with my professors.”

While most of this year’s Rhodes Associates work in fields related to their majors or intended career paths, not all of them are working directly with professors. Many have administrative positions.

Computer science major Bill Israel, 21, trains and oversees the student workers who keep the residential computer network humming. Senior Laura Blanton, 21, an aspiring journalist with a genetic predisposition to writing (her mother is a well-published mystery writer) is composing feature stories for Rhodes magazine. Meg Sizemore, 19, coordinates and promotes events for Career Services. She recently helped create the marketing plan for Grad School Awareness Week which included student mailbox stuffers of Ramen noodles and the note, “Let your first grad school meal be on us.”

No matter what their campus jobs, no matter what their intended career goals, participants agree that RSAP is filling a void on campus.

With approximately 700 of Rhodes’ 1600 students—nearly half the student body—working at the college in any given year, the issue of campus employment is front and center among students. It has been that way through the years, beginning in the 1930s soon after the college had moved to Memphis. During those grinding years of the Great Depression, now-Memphis attorney Lewis Donelson ’38 and CLU Russell Perry ’33 financed their education through a work-study arrangement. Donelson was a grader for Prof. Sam Monk, while Perry worked in college public relations directly under President Charles E. Diehl. Not only did it gave them the educational experience of a lifetime, it shaped their future and lifelong relationship with the college.

Their stories inspired President William Troutt to begin thinking about new approaches to student employment that would better benefit both the students and the college.

Today at Rhodes some students work in internships; others, as part of the college’s large work-study program, which provides campus jobs—many of them clerical positions. Work-study offers its workers hourly wages of $5.15 to $5.90.

“Work-study is a perfect fit for some students, but not all. These (work-study positions) are legitimate jobs. Someone needs to file the folders and do the clerical work,” says Dr. Jo Bennett, associate director of financial aid a coordinator of RSAP. “But sometimes (students) can’t afford to work for $5.15 an hour. Sometimes a student wants more or different challenges from those offered by traditional work-study jobs."

Before creating the program, Bennett explains, organizers “talked to a lot of students about their perceptions of work opportunities at Rhodes, what it would take to make a meaningful job and what kind of pay it would take to make them want to stay on campus and work here for us.”

The result is a program tailor-made for students like junior Laura Vargo, 23, an associate in the Counseling Center. She loves her job, surveying 65 college counseling centers across the country to compare the services they offer.

“I am excited,” she says, “that the work I am doing might eventually aid the entire student body with new or more efficient programs.”

Equally important, the job is keeping her at Rhodes. For financial reasons Vargo feared she would have to transfer to a less expensive state school to finish requirements for medical school. Thanks in large part to RSAP that won’t happen.

"I can stay at Rhodes for another year and receive a more substantial academic preparation for the MCAT and medical school," she maintains.

“We know that if we can keep our students working on campus, it’s going to enhance their college experience,” says Bennett. “Students who work on campus as opposed to off campus make higher grades, they’re more satisfied with the college experience and they’re more connected to the institution.”

They almost have their own “support system” in the department where they work, she says, a significant benefit for those a long way from home.

Students who work on campus are also more likely to stay at Rhodes. Bob Johnson believes the program will improve retention at the college and that will, in turn, save money for the institution. (It’s cheaper to keep students than to recruit new ones.)

Student Associates can potentially earn $4,000-$6,000 a year depending on how many hours a week they work. The maximum weekly load is 15 hours, but participants may work fewer. Many, however, do work a full load and still manage to cram in the multitude of social and volunteer activities that typify the Rhodes student.

Sophomore Randi Johnson, a Student Associate in Rhodes’ Student Leadership office, is helping develop and implement student leadership programs on campus.

“I can still fit in all my previous activities,” says Johnson, who is involved in Air Force ROTC, her sorority Alpha Omicron Pi, the Russian Club and Model UN. “I just find that I sleep a little bit less now.”

The push for a new and improved collegiate jobs program actually came from two corners of campus.

One, of course, was third floor Halliburton Tower, the office of Rhodes President Troutt. After chairing the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, Troutt has figured prominently in U.S. public debate over the cost of higher education and the impact on student access to it. In recent years he has challenged campus leaders to find innovative ways to improve education while controlling costs. Increasingly, administrators have studied student employment as a potential tether to rising personnel costs.

While the president and staff brainstormed about a campus jobs program, students were also thinking outside the work-study box. In January 2003 at a Dean’s Council meeting of faculty, staff and students, J.R. Tarabocchia, a senior at the time, agreed to lead a Rhodes Student Government initiative to examine and improve the campus employment program. The idea “stemmed from my own experiences” as a worker in the Rhodes Music Academy, notes Tarabocchia, who is currently a law student in New Hampshire.

The student initiative had four goals, he explains: to “formalize and demystify the process of finding a job, to use students’ work potential while developing their work experience,” to help students earn enough to make up the gap between financial aid and rising tuition costs and finally, to create a centralized office for dealing with campus employment.

The Rhodes Student Associates Program does all four. It also expands eligibility: Any student can apply for a RSAP position, no matter whether he or she has financial need.

With its emphasis on career-track jobs in a broad range of fields, RSAP comes at a good time for liberal arts students faced with a tight job market, notes Career Services director Sandi George Tracy, who, along with financial aid’s Jo Bennett, is coordinating the Student Associates Program.

With the launch of the program, academic and administrative departments on campus submitted proposals for RSAP positions in their departments. They had to make a case that the job would enhance the career potential of the student and would benefit the college in a substantial way. Once the RSAP coordinating committee approved the positions, departments recruited and formally interviewed student applicants.

“I’ve had some students say to me, ‘wow, that was a tough interview’,” says Bennett. “But the interview process is similar to the interview they’re going to have for their first real job after graduation. That’s a life skill that may not get taught in the classroom, but something they’re going to need to know.”

During the year, students will also receive special training as well as a formal evaluation by their department mentor. They also will have the opportunity to hold on to their jobs for the full time they are enrolled at the college. As the program grows larger and becomes fully established, it will seek first-year students and sophomores who can remain in the Associate jobs for several years.

“To make this program viable, it needs to be sustainable. We need to have students in their jobs long enough to learn to train other students to take their place and to manage students,” explains Bob Johnson. “We could not afford to have staff who already had full-time job responsibilities to monitor all these new student workers.”

With the new jobs program, students will provide a valuable service to the college, completing work that in many cases would not otherwise get done. Still, the real benefit to Rhodes, says Bennett, is its elevation as a “model institution in the area of student employment and student development.”

“I can envision other institutions looking at Rhodes and what we’ve done,” notes Bennett, “how we’ve taken a relatively small amount of money, developed this tremendous pool of talent and used it to benefit the college as well as the students.”