Students are increasingly cognizant of the need to find a bridge between academia and the corporate world. They want to know when and how their on-campus experience will translate into a viable career.
To answer that, one school, Northern Illinois University, created the Code Orange Initiative, a unique, hands-on, and engaging learning experience, in partnership with Discover Financial Services, a direct banking and payment services company.
Karinne Bredberg, Assistant Director for Commercialization and Innovation at Northern Illinois University, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to talk about the power of on-campus employer partnerships and NIU’s agreement with Discover Financial.
The Code Orange Initiative
The Code Orange Initiative is housed on the Dekalb campus’ main library in space that Discover renovated into a state-of-the-art facility. It’s designed to be agile, modern, and open, mirroring what Discover is doing at its own headquarters.
After a selective interview process, students get grouped into teams of six or seven. “This spring, we have almost 80 students in 13 teams,” Karinne told us. “Each team has a product owner and a technology mentor, both from Discover headquarters, to help the students when needed.”
Because they are working in teams, the students hold each other accountable for their progress on the projects. Students can work up to 19 hours per week. Most get assigned to projects geared toward operational or internal processes for Discover.
“They’re building a website for the program. So, students will be able to go to a direct website to learn more about the program and what they’re doing and what they can expect to be doing when they work for Discover,” Karinne said. “Last fall, they had an open house where over 140 students came to see the space. The program manager from Discover, Mike Brenner, tasked his own team to build an online sign-in sheet so students that were coming in, could sign in. Not only would Discover have the register of the students that came, but then they could follow up with those students to let them know when other events were happening or when interviews were being conducted.” The program provides an amazing opportunity to work in a corporate setting right on campus.
What Has the Student Response to this Collaboration Been?
Discover has really invested in NIU because of its ability to produce high-quality graduates, and the school has a strong relationship with the company through its alumni base. Discover has employed many NIU alumni, including its current CIO, Glenn Schneider and its vice president of application development, Joel Suchomel.
“Both of those gentlemen were really integral in bringing this program to NIU,” Karinne said. “Discover looks at this as a theater group and to their existing employee base. In order to provide opportunities to gain full-time employment after graduation.”
For their part, NIU students have been ecstatic. More than 140 students came to the open house. During early negotiations with Discover, they were thinking maybe they would just do a pilot program, employing 4-6 students. Once Discover started interviewing, however, their team realized what a strong talent pool NIU maintains, and that number quickly grew to 40.
“It’s really going to help the students’ careers when they graduate,” Karinne said.
How to Develop Similar CorporatePartnerships Moving Forward
“We’re always looking to collaborate with business, industry, community organizations, other universities,” Karinne told us. “We have hundreds of partnerships already in place throughout campus.”
A local company called Ideal Industries maintains an entrepreneurship program, for example, and they select a group of multi-disciplinary students every year to create, develop, and market new products and services for the company. After graduation, students can seek full-time employment with Ideal, specifically to work on commercializing that product or service.
“They’ve hired around 14 students in the last three years,” Karinne said. “We really look towards these collaborations as a win, win.”
NIU’s partners can tap into the incredible talents of the university’s students, and conversely, the students get amazing opportunities to engage in hands-on, real-world learning where they can apply what they learn in a classroom into a corporate setting.
Next-Steps Advice for Other Institutions Pursuing Corporate Partnerships
“It’s really about making those connections with your alumni,” Karinne said. “That has been an amazing resource for us.”
A lot of alumni still live in the area and hold a fondness for NIU, so they want to see the school succeed. They are always trying to find ways to make that happen.
“We’ve been lucky that we had Discover come to us and say they wanted to build a partnership with us,” Karinne told us. “The first thing that you want to do … is to make sure to get your team ready.”
NIU had a large team from different areas that would be impacted by this type of relationship, including legal facilities and the library staff. Karinne and her team had to bring all those people together so that these various stakeholders understand the mission, the directives, and the goals and can make the partnership happen.
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