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Home / News / Business News / A word with Nick van Santen, Associate Director, Experiential Learning at Boise State University Career Services

A word with Nick van Santen, Associate Director, Experiential Learning at Boise State University Career Services

Nick van Santen

In many industries, an internship is a critical means to get a foot in the door and launch a successful career, but those coveted spots can be hard to secure.

Fortunately, Boise State University is connecting more and more students to internship opportunities through an innovative program that combines on-site experience with classroom learning. Launched in 2016, Work U offers three upper-division credits for participation during the spring or fall semester. Students work 10 hours per week (unpaid) at their internship site, taking on meaningful projects and tasks identified by their mentors. They also spend time in the classroom reflecting on and discussing their workplace experiences, identifying post-graduation goals, developing LinkedIn profiles, and learning from the career journeys of guest speakers.

Unlike a traditional internship, Work U students can apply for any placement regardless of their major or field of study. They are matched based on specific skill sets identified by the internship mentor.

Boise State University. Photo by Liz Patterson Harbauer.

Block 22 Hotels LLC, Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, Boise Convention & Visitors Bureau, Meridian Chamber of Commerce, Southwestern Idaho Manufacturers’ Alliance (SWIMA) and City of Boise, among others, have been proponents of the Work U program.

Recently, the Idaho Business Review connected with Nick van Santen, associate director of Experiential Learning at Boise State University Career Services to talk more about Work U and the power of internships.

An Idaho native, van Santen graduated from the College of Idaho, then went on to Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, and St. Mary’s College in California, from which he received his doctorate in educational leadership in 2018.

Nick and his family relocated to Boise from the Bay Area this summer.

How did the Work U program come about? Where did the idea come from?

The Work U program was developed by Gordon Jones, founding Dean of the College of Innovation and Design at Boise State University. The program began in 2016 in partnership with St. Luke’s Health System as a form of cooperative education. St. Luke’s, the City of Boise, Saint Alphonsus, Albertsons and Boise State University were early Work U partners, helping to transform the program at its formative stages into the robust program it is today. Boise State University Career Services now leads the Work U program as part of its vital Experiential Learning endeavors to connect and guide students as they develop their professional aspirations alongside their studies.

How do you find interns? What qualities or background are you looking for in an intern? How does the program work?

We recruit students through direct contact, faculty connections, outreach to student organizations, guest presentations at classes, and networking across campus. We seek students who want and need professional development experience, are willing to work hard and learn, and are seeking to explore and/or enhance their career goals.

Most of the students placed with employers through the Work U program are juniors or seniors. As they are approaching graduation, we want to provide opportunities to our students to gain professional experience in areas relating to their academic coursework and career aspirations.

The beauty of Work U is that we encourage our Work U partners to create opportunities that are open to all undergraduate majors, skill sets, and levels of experience. Unlike traditional internships, Work U does not focus on students of specific majors; instead the program matches students with opportunities based on interest and skills.

The opportunities submitted to Career Services twice a year are posted online by Boise State Career Services; students are invited to apply for Work U at the same time they are enrolling in academic courses. The Experiential Learning team matches students with opportunities. We recommend students to employers, who review applications and either accept or reject them. Students accepted by employers have the opportunity to agree to the placement and, upon doing so, are invited to enroll in Work U.

While student participation in the Work U program is increasing every semester, employers are not guaranteed that each of their opportunities will be filled. By the same token, if there are more student applicants than there are employer opportunities, students are not guaranteed placement.

How do you find companies? What are you looking for in participating companies?

Much of the growth in the Work U program has come about because of strong community support throughout the Treasure Valley, such as by ongoing referrals by our colleagues at Boise State University and many current partners. Participation has grown largely through word of mouth and referrals.

Great mentorship is the key to the success of the Work U program. We seek employers who embrace the professional development mission of this program and submit opportunity descriptions providing meaningful projects and tasks for our students. We realize it takes additional capacity to be able to mentor students effectively.

Some employers have reported they need more than one student per opportunity because there is so much work to do. As such, Work U is flexible in that it adjusts to each employer’s capacity based on their needs each semester. For example, employers can request two students to collaborate on a single opportunity guided by one mentor or employers may create several mentored opportunities in many different areas (marketing, communications, HR, administration) for one or more students with one or more mentors per student.

Over the last three years, we have heard from our Work U employers that our students have enabled them to expand talent pipelines to Boise State students, provided management or coaching opportunities for employees, and tackled languishing projects. Ultimately, we seek partners in all sectors (business, nonprofits, government) for long-term relationships to create multiple types of experiential learning opportunities for mutual benefit.

How’s it working out? How has the number of interns and companies grown over time?

Thanks to widespread support at Boise State University and throughout the Treasure Valley, especially among our partners, the Work U program has grown rapidly in terms of the number, variety and quality of opportunities in the past four years. St. Luke’s was the sole founding Work U partner in Fall 2016 and the program had fewer than 10 students that semester. In Spring 2020, 49 off-campus partners and 12 on-campus partners combined to create 150 Work U opportunities. There were 200 student applications for the Spring 2020 semester, up from over 140 the previous semester. In terms of quality, we have enjoyed our Work U students sharing with us their success stories of securing professional employment within our program.

Beyond the numbers, we have found that employers are hungry and excited about the possibility of attracting new talent from Boise State University. Perhaps even more surprising, however, is the willingness for our employers to participate in a program that focuses on workforce development through the lens of mentorship. We have found that what makes Work U so impactful for our students and employers is the professional relationship and mentorship that form throughout the program.

What has happened to the interns after they completed the program?

At the end of each semester, Career Services sponsors a Final Showcase at which students describe their achievements and mentors publicly praise their students. At the Spring 2019 Showcase, one student exclaimed that every Boise State student should be required to participate in Work U, and the CEO of that organization, who was her mentor, encouraged every Treasure Valley employer to consider mentoring a Work U student. We believe the vast majority of Work U students are better prepared and more employable as a direct result of the Work U program. In addition, students have consistently reported an improved sense of professional confidence as a direct result of their participation in Work U.

Every semester we learn of several students who were hired by their Work U employers, by other employers in the Treasure Valley, or who are offered paid internships, as direct results of their participation in the program. For example, after the Fall 2019 semester ended, we learned of 13 students who were hired or got additional internships at 10 employers, many of which mentored them.

Nearly 20% of our Work U students correlate their current professional career with their Work U experience. Meaning, our students are being hired right after the program into a variety of roles within their respective sites.

What has surprised you the most about the program?

While we knew that a program like this could have a significant impact for those students participating, it was exciting to see our Work U employer partners’ reactions to our program. Our partners value the role higher education plays in our community and they were willing to lend their time and talents in order to help our students develop professionally. What surprised us was the impact our students have on their mentors and the organizations in which they are placed. These Work U students are making contributions far beyond what we were anticipating and showing our community partners what students with energy, fresh ideas and a willingness to learn — regardless of their major — have the ability to bring to an organization.

What are your hopes for Work U in the future?

Our hope is that Work U and experiential learning at Boise State University continues to grow in breadth and depth. We will continue to refine and enhance the Work U program to ensure it is a high-impact program for both our students and our community partners.

We also understand that the future of our program depends not only on employer participation to create new Work U opportunities and internships, but also on student participation to fill them. Right now, students receive three credits that count toward their graduation, for which they have to pay tuition and fees; this isn’t cheap, especially when students may be quitting a paying job to take a Work U opportunity due to time constraints. We need to identify and secure additional funding sources to provide additional financial support to Work U students who need it. Also we want to do a better job attracting the students who may not be applying since they cannot afford to take on an unpaid internship. Our hope, therefore, is to directly tackle those financial barriers that inhibit access to our successful career development program. For example, we are hoping to offer a basic stipend to cover any potential health insurance or transportation issues.

Also, we have turned our focus toward enhancing our Internship program, which is separate from Work U. We are looking for process improvements that will offer more flexibility and autonomy to our employer partners. We are applying some best practices learned by leading the Work U efforts for several years in order to enhance the 1,100 Boise State facilitated internship experiences for students and employers. This innovation will continue, as it always has because we are committed to the future of our students, our community and our world.

In Idaho, there has been a lot of conversation about the talent pipeline. Are we doing a good job developing the talent we have in the state? How can companies get Idahoans into great careers rather than importing people from out-of-state? What are your thoughts?

As a native of Boise who has been away for the last 10 years, I believe Idaho has a unique opportunity to leverage the more positive aspects of its rapid growth to offset some of its negative consequences. Meaning, with the remarkable development that is occurring in our region, we have an opportunity to consider and implement innovative ways to educate, develop and retain professional talent. We could consider investing, as a state, in relatively low-cost, high-impact programs such as our Work U program and other programs that work with employers to accelerate the development of internship opportunities, in order to improve the ability of our students to graduate better prepared for dynamic careers.

And, at the same time, employers participating in the Work U program grasp its value as an effective way to cultivate current and future leadership talent. We all have a stake in our students, our community and our state. I believe we can all play an important role in developing superb professionals and building and maintaining talent pipelines that benefit Idaho’s economy.

About Kim Burgess

Kim Burgess is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.