Professional Development Through Service

About 3 months ago, I had the idea of offering a professional development workshop to a small group of my most hardworking students. I thought that it would be a great opportunity to explore how service could teach valuable professional skills while also promoting empathy and the importance of giving back. I never had someone coach me on professionalism when I was an undergraduate, and I wanted to offer that opportunity to my students. Plus, I wanted to leverage UIC’s diversity and commitment to improving the city of Chicago to help prepare these students for the working world.

I proposed a service project to a group of students, and invited senior Katie Sharp and junior Allan Rodriguez to be team leaders. I imagined we’d do a walkathon to raise money for cancer research, or spend 2-3 hours at a homeless shelter serving food, and that we’d get to know one another, after which I’d debrief to talk about professional development. Katie had grander ideas. She proposed we solicit donations to distribute essential personal care packs to homeless people around downtown Chicago. Instead of a one-day service project, she wanted our team to be immersed in a process, to learn about what would be most useful to the people we intended to serve.

I loved the idea, but I was hesitant. How would we get the food and personal care products? Some students had just graduated or accepted full time jobs or internships. Most were full time students with part-time jobs. My husband and I had busy travel schedules and 2 kids involved in activities six days a week. How would we schedule months of working together? Finally, I worried that since I was the primary contact for this group, and most students didn’t even know one another, I would be the one most heavily involved in coordinating the project.

Katie was unwavering. She respectfully advised me, “When you do service, you should pick the cause first, then look for when there might be opportunities to help your cause.” And throughout these months of organizing, that is what I have come to learn most from Katie and Allan: integrity to the true heart of this mission—service.

So I put my business-mind to work. I realized that this service project was exactly what my students would need to test their professional acumen. They would need to be the marketers they’ve been training to be in order to sell our service project to potential donors. The students’ time management and multitasking skills would be put to the test over the months-long scope of the project. They would need to learn to trust their teammates and leaders. Their leaders would have to learn how to help each team member perform at their best. And I knew this type of hands-on experience would prove to be far more valuable than a single post-Walkathon discussion.

At first, I was swamped with e-mails, just as I had (fearfully) expected. My routine response was, “I don’t know. Ask Katie and Allan.” After awhile, I was only receiving updates from Katie and Allan about donations secured. Katie and Allan kept us organized through Google Docs, GroupMe, e-mail, and text messaging, making detailed records of supplies and donations, and surveying downtown Chicago to map out where our team would deliver. I watched a group Google Doc charting donations go from empty to exponentially increasing as students became more confident, persuasive, and excited by their newly discovered skills and friendships.

Students were using their marketing skills (and braving the elements–see Alan and Danit, right) to secure donations from businesses. We had Mel score a big donation from Robert Bosch Tool Corporation. Bobby picked up a big donation from Cooked, who was so generous with lunch meat and cheese to make sandwiches that Bobby had a hard time fitting everything in his fridge. Brady collected a big donation from Target.

Under the leadership of Katie and Allan (left), the group performed to a high standard. Our GoFundMe campaign exceeded its goal; Katie coached her teammates on how to interact with homeless people, explaining that we were entering their space and their homes, and that we needed to be respectful. Allan prepped the logistics of delivery, and emphasized team safety above all.

The signs of bonding were there–students who were once strangers to each other began having inside jokes with one another (some of them surely about me). More importantly, the students felt a sense of shared ownership for the work they ‘d accomplished. On April 23rd, we successfully delivered food and care packages to 100+ people around downtown Chicago, amidst laughter, hugs, fist bumps, and good spirits. Though we had all been communicating virtually for months, for many students on the team, this was their first face-to-face interaction with their teammates. For many, I had been their only link to the group. And though social media is an amazingly efficient way for teams to work, when the work culminates in a positive and creative activity (like making 100+ sandwiches), truly authentic and meaningful bonds can form in the name of a common cause.

For more photos and the full story behind my students' project, link here.