A Flexible Student Development Program for Today’s Incredibly Busy Student

Everyone has a Roger on their Campus…

Roger, a student who commutes, is typical of many college students today. Busy doesn’t begin to describe him; he takes classes, works two jobs that consume 25-30 hours a week, occasionally volunteers in the community, and like most young adults, tries to have a social life when possible.

Roger is a pre-medical student intent on getting accepted into medical school. Because of this goal, he decided to take on leadership roles to enhance his medical school applications. Roger is the president of the pre-medical student organization. He discovered that he would like to learn more about developing his leadership skills and is interested in being a member of the university’s leadership development program. In addition he would like to join one of the community service student organizations because he has heard from several faculty and staff members how much professional schools (and employers) value leadership and community engagement experiences. Unfortunately, his academics, commuting, and work obligations simply do not allow him enough time to engage in many of the sustained leadership development experiences offered on campus.

Off campus, Roger volunteers for a number of short-term projects in his community. Recently, Roger spent his summer as a camp counselor/leader for a diverse group of inner-city children, and he currently shadows a doctor at a local hospital and volunteers there in preparation for his future as a physician. Even though these are not the “traditional” student engagement and leadership experiences provided on campus, shouldn’t they count for something?

Through service learning, internships, study abroad programs and many other opportunities, colleges and universities are encouraging student learning beyond the confines of the traditional classroom. The Superior Edge program at Northern Michigan University (NMU) utilizes this expanding concept of engagement and goes a step further in acknowledging that students can accomplish learning objectives both within and outside of sponsored university programs and initiatives. Superior Edge is built upon the premise that a student’s knowledge of leadership, civic engagement and responsibility, diversity, and career preparation can be acquired through a variety of experiences that are not confined to sponsored programs. Through Superior Edge, students like Roger can gain credit for many different experiences of their choosing that move them towards defined learning outcomes and then have their work validated through a Student Enrichment Transcript.

This article will describe highlights of the Superior Edge program, how it was developed at NMU, how it is making a difference for student participants, and issues to consider for anyone interested in establishing a similar program on their campus.

Superior Edge Will Count It!

In its simplest form, Superior Edge at NMU is a program that addresses what it takes to be a well-rounded individual in today’s society. The program allows its participants to put together an online portfolio of curricular and co-curricular experiences connected to learning outcomes. This portfolio is comprised of four areas (called Edges) which include: Citizenship, Diversity, Leadership, and Real World. Each edge requires 100 hours of commitment, is rooted in three or four outcomes, and requires participants to provide adequate reflection for each experience. Students are responsible for tracking their hours. Every student at NMU can join regardless of class standing, major, or GPA. Students can progress at their own pace and hours can be completed at any time during their enrollment and at any location. Students are given the freedom to complete one, two, three, or all four edges.

Developing Superior Edge at NMU

Like many schools, NMU already had a comprehensive leadership program that was successful but limited to a defined number of students. So staff began pondering how to make leadership and other developmental activities accessible to large numbers of students. This discussion was occurring at a time when a new president came on board and there was considerable faculty and student affairs staff interest in providing meaningful out-of-the-classroom and classroom-connected experiences for NMU students. A 25-member task force was created by the president and comprised of faculty, staff, and students. Over the course of the year, the committee met weekly and developed a program with defined learning outcomes in which any student enrolled in the University could participate. The role and importance of the Superior Edge task force was crucial. The many different perspectives resulted in a product that was far better than any one person could have conceived individually.

Widespread support from faculty for Superior Edge was realized due to the heavy faculty involvement from a broad spectrum of departments. Students provided excellent feedback about what was realistic for them to accomplish while still having the program remain meaningful. In addition to providing input for programmatic design, staff on the task force helped indentify the resources needed to implement Superior Edge. By continuing to keep students, faculty, and staff involved with the growth and development of Superior Edge, over 2,000 students are currently enrolled.

The goals of Superior Edge are to facilitate a well-rounded co-curricular experience for student participants, to set participating students apart from non-participants; to institutionalize a program that connects students, faculty, staff, and the community; and lastly, to offer a program that allows flexibility for today’s students who have very busy schedules.

Over 20 % of the NMU student body is involved with Superior Edge. The program receives support from numerous academic departments, is connected to various community organizations and businesses, and receives full backing from the administration. Superior Edge has become institutionalized at NMU through broad campus support and diverse involvement from a network of on- and off-campus support groups.

In short, Superior Edge works because the benefits can be perceived from all parties involved. Students’ progress is assessed against outcomes laid out at the program’s inception. Upon completion of an edge, staff members review individual reflection papers using a rubric that measures student learning. Many students appreciate the impact they have been able to make on their own personal development, on campus, and in the surrounding community. Finally, Superior Edge works with a busy schedule in a variety of settings at the level a student like Roger can choose.

The Competitive Edge

In the end, Superior Edge provides its graduates an advantage when pursuing further studies or entering the workforce. Graduate schools and employers recognize that they will be interviewing a candidate with well-rounded experiences. They will be meeting someone with leadership experience, who takes initiative, understands the role ethics plays in decision making, appreciates multiculturalism, and who is motivated to make a difference. Participants’ edge-packed resumes set them apart from other college graduates.

Superior Edge is proving to be a transformative experience for participating students as they discover that a meaningful life is built on a foundation of hard work, service, and the courage to take chances. The hours of involvement, volunteering, and commitment represent a priceless investment in confidence, self-esteem, and the future. While these experiences have always been available to a select group of “heavily involved” students, Superior Edge facilitates involvement to the broad mass of students, many of whom could not participate in structured co-curricular programs because of their schedules and life circumstances. It is meaningful to note that many participating students begin Superior Edge with a goal of completing a particular Edge but often expand into other “Edges” as well.

NMU recognizes every student who completes an Edge with a Student Enrichment Transcript. This transcript is maintained by the Registrar’s Office and accompanies the student’s academic transcript. The Student Enrichment Transcript differs from a traditional co-curricular transcript in that it is connected to specific learning outcomes.

College students everywhere are participating in many exciting and beneficial activities. Most of them are not fully aware of how they are learning and growing and what they are accomplishing. An effective way for students to appreciate the impact of their involvement is to have them reflect on their experiences in a structured way. In Superior Edge, students reflect on every activity logged and also discuss what and how they met one or more of the identified outcomes. Students reflect again when they complete an Edge by writing a reflection paper. Busy students are provided the opportunity to think about their experiences, and therefore, are better able to effectively communicate what they have gained from their participation.

Think Differently

If your campus is interested in developing a program like Superior Edge, consider the possibility of establishing learning outcomes that allow students to set their own path across varied experiences. Students have the freedom to take advantage of the many opportunities available in every aspect of their lives on and off campus that can, when connected to learning outcomes, help them develop an “Edge.” These can include summer jobs, internships, community involvement, and much more, including traditional co-curricular involvements. Being able to fit a program to what students are doing versus fitting students involvement to a specific program not only celebrates the diversity of student interests, but also allows for better overall student preparedness upon graduation.

Please send inquires and feedback to Rachel Harris at [email protected]. More information about the Superior Edge program is available at www.nmu.edu/superioredge. E-mails can also be sent to [email protected].

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