GAP program illustrates what liberal arts majors can bring to the table
Developing a marketing strategy for an archeological dig in Israel, advising a global plastics manufacturer on a possible expansion into Indonesia, and improving pharmaceutical inventory management for a clinic in Guatemala sound like extracurricular or simulated class activities, but these are real-world projects completed by students in the GAP program at the University of Evansville (UE).
GAP, the cornerstone program of UE’s Institute for Global Enterprise, seeks to bridge the gap between classroom and real-world. Leveraging a network of contacts in the Evansville, Ind., business community, Jill Griffin, executive director of the Institute and a former management consultant, is able to connect GAP teams of three to five students with meaningful work.
“We’re asking companies to give us a small piece of something that really matters to their organization and have our students tackle it and provide value on it,” said Griffin.
Getting the Ball Rolling
Headquarters for several large, publicly traded companies are located in Evansville, the third largest city in Indiana. Convincing both large and small companies and organizations to take a chance on students requires behind-the-scenes relationship building.
“There can be a degree of skepticism especially when we tell them that it’s primarily undergraduates that are working on the projects and also that they may or may not be majoring in an area that is related to the project,” said Griffin.
To sell the idea, companies are assured that teams are comprised of hard-working students who bring a fresh perspective while coached by experts.
It became much easier to pitch potential partners once GAP had success stories, but there was also a learning curve for UE as Griffin figured out which projects were best suited to the semester-long course. While projects must be important, urgent or mission-critical projects were not a good match, explained Griffin, because the students need time to learn about the company, the industry, and the skills they will need to complete the project.
UE senior Peter May worked on a GAP team with four other students to research Indonesia as a possible market expansion for Berry Plastics, an Evansville-based Fortune 500 company with more than $7 billion in global sales of plastic packaging. In addition to May’s background in political science and business, his four team members brought backgrounds in graphic design, sport communications, accounting, and archaeology. While all of the team members had input into the entire project, each took the lead in aspects that played to their strengths.
In addition to balancing project management and life as a college student, the team encountered real-world obstacles. Nearing the completion of the semester, Griffin organized a trial run so the team could present their project to a former Starbucks marketing executive. The team felt confident, but the result was sharp criticism. May said that the “humbling experience” tested the maturity of the team because although they first felt dismissive of her criticism, they ultimately applied her knowledge and insight to improve their project before they presented it to Berry Plastics.
GAP has had unforeseen benefits for students. For example, executives from Berry Plastics spend time with GAP students outside of projects. They host pizza dinners to talk about the students’ career aspirations and later reach out to contacts outside of Berry that might be good resources for students. When A. O. Smith, a water technology company based in Milwaukee, asked for help with a market research project, UE decided to host a competition between several GAP teams and several teams from a UE marketing course. A. O. Smith flew the winning team to Milwaukee to present their findings and make recommendations to to the company’s top executives. It was the first time in an airplane for two of the team members.
Some GAP projects are actually quite far from Evansville. A student team traveled to a health clinic run by Mission Guatemala (which was founded by a UE alum) to help improve inventory management in the pharmacy. They leveraged a local resource, however, to maximize their impact. Executives from Accuride Corporation, an Evansville-based automotive supplier that excels in inventory management, trained the students in techniques that could be applied to the rural clinic.
GAP’s success has seen a snowball effect. Some companies have asked for multiple projects, and other projects have led to referrals. After a GAP team developed a marketing and fundraising strategy for an archeological dig on a kibbutz in Israel, a pool security company on the same kibbutz asked GAP to research its North American market potential. There are five GAP projects this semester; next spring Griffin anticipates there will be nine. If there were enough students and coaches, she has enough interested companies and organizations to do 15 to 20 projects per semester.
GAP’s Unique Framework
GAP projects are open to all students in every major and every year of study, although a faculty recommendation is required for admission into the course. While the teams are heavily weighted with juniors and seniors, freshmen and sophomores are also welcome to apply.
“We’re excited that right off the bat they can start to see how their skills will be used in the real world, and that gets them excited about their education,” said Griffin. “They take that passion and excitement back into their classrooms.”
GAP is a three credit hour class in which students learn soft skills, such as business communications, project management, professional interactions (introductions, elevator pitches), teamwork and problem-solving that will help them tackle the project at hand. Each GAP team has a coach (faculty or outside expert) who answers questions and keeps them moving forward to meet their goals.
“It’s important that students own the projects. They have to figure out their own paths to success. It’s so different than a classroom setting in which you know the rubric for grading. The only thing they know at the beginning is the project scope,” said Griffin.
The majority of a student’s grade is based on the team’s project grade. That is largely determined by client satisfaction, although professors can adjust grades for students who contribute more or less than others, based on peer evaluations.
While the GAP program was challenging, May said that he frequently reflects on the experience when he writes reflection papers during his senior seminar class. Other GAP participants report similar feedback, noting that the GAP experience factors heavily into job interviews. Some students have even received job offers directly out of the GAP program.
“Employers are impressed by the level of experience that they have been able to get as undergraduates, by their ability to work on cross-functional teams, and by the soft skills they have developed in the process,” said Griffin.