Providing Students With Passports to Success

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Tuesday, February 9, 2021
By Keondra Mitchell, Christine Bell, William "Rick" Crandall
Photo by iStock/ozgurcankaya
A professional development program ensures that students have the soft skills needed to succeed in their careers.

In 2014, the School of Business at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) found itself in a precarious situation—its graduates were not very professional in appearance or behavior. Furthermore, many had poor interpersonal skills and spent most of their time hiding behind the screens of their phones.

It was clear that it would be difficult to address these problems in the classroom, because no part of our curriculum taught professionalism, networking, and interpersonal skills. Our assurance of learning (AOL) goals didn’t even assess these competencies.

We knew we had to find a way to teach our students the “covert curriculum” that Drew Appleby describes in a 2001 article in Eye on Psi Chi Magazine. This covert curriculum consists of the knowledge that students gain as they complete their courses—the professional skills and learning habits that will aid them throughout their careers. The AOL committee took on the huge task of ensuring that our students learned these skills.

We began by researching schools that had set up similar programs, including the University of San Diego in California and Xavier University in Cincinnati. We benchmarked these two universities while considering our own unique mission. In 2014, the UNCP School of Business launched our Passport to Professional Success Program.

Overcoming Obstacles

Implementing the Passport Program required a cultural shift for both the School of Business and the university, because the program did not fit neatly into existing organizational processes. And because our institution is small, the School of Business does not operate autonomously. We had to obtain approval from business faculty, the university curriculum committee, the academic affairs committee, and the university faculty senate. The last three groups, which reside outside the School of Business, had little vested interest in the deployment and success of the Passport Program.

We faced quite a bit of opposition. For instance, at a university curriculum meeting, a high-ranking member in the administration stated that we did not know what we were doing. When the faculty senate voted on whether to have the program listed within the university’s learning management system (LMS), the vote was split 50-50. Fortunately, the president of the faculty senate cast the deciding vote in our favor.

There was even some initial resistance from the business faculty. However, as the committee answered their questions and explained the merits of the program, the faculty eventually became committed to the idea. When the final vote was taken to approve the program, no one opposed.

Designing Activities

Once we received approval for the Passport Program, we designed it to emphasize soft skills such as communication and harmonious interaction with others. All UNCP business majors are required to participate in the program, and 350 students have graduated from it so far.

The program, which is housed within our LMS, is composed of six activities that can be undertaken in any order, except for the exit interview. After completing most events, students are required to submit written summaries that are graded by the Passport Agent, the person who acts as the administrative assistant for the program. Throughout each semester, the Passport Agent announces various activities that can fulfill each requirement. Students are charged a nominal fee of 30 USD per semester to cover the administrative costs, such as guest speaker fees and food for events.

One key feature of the Passport Program is that online, nontraditional, and professional students receive the same benefits as our face-to-face students do. About half of the UNCP School of Business students complete their coursework entirely online, and the program allows them to look in their own local communities to find events that meet program requirements. This gives them incentives to volunteer and join civic organizations where they live. Two members of the Passport Committee must validate and approve these outside requests.

In the first phase of the Passport Program, Awareness I (White Belt), students are provided with an overview of the program and sign a contract agreeing to fulfill its requirements as a condition of graduating. Students also complete a session on study abroad and a module highlighting the importance of community and civic engagement.

We designed the Passport Program to emphasize soft skills such as communication and harmonious interaction with others.

In the second phase, Awareness II (Yellow Belt), students complete two faculty engagement activities. One popular choice is “Cups and Conversation,” where students mingle informally with faculty and staff in the lobby of the School of Business while enjoying coffee and snacks. Online students typically fulfill the engagement requirement through phone or video chats with faculty members. The Awareness II phase also requires students to attend an information session about internships.

In the next phase, Fundamentals I (Orange Belt), students attend a résumé-writing workshop, which is produced in collaboration with the University Career Center. Students can get additional help on résumé writing through documents and video tutorials on the LMS. During this phase, students also attend an event called the Professional and Career Development Institute (PCDI), which consists of various career skills workshops and presentations by guest speakers.

Several activities are required for Fundamentals II (Green Belt). For instance, students must make two verbal presentations while dressed professionally. These presentations often are completed as class assignments, with faculty using a standardized rubric to evaluate students’ skills.

During Fundamentals II, students also must attend two professional dinners—one of which is an etiquette dinner. The Career Center hosts biannual etiquette dinners led by professional etiquette experts, and many students say this is the Passport Program component they enjoy the most. The school hosts other professional dinners that students can attend to meet the second dinner requirement, or they can identify their own opportunities, such as scholarship banquets. Online students might opt to attend conference luncheons.

In addition, students are required to participate in three networking events and attend three speaker presentations. Some choose options offered by the school, such as a speed networking event and a speaker series. Others go to local chamber of commerce meetings, find activities at the Entrepreneurship Center, or choose their own opportunities. Students also can view videos of speakers online.

For the Involvement (Purple Belt) phase of the Passport Program, students can take a study abroad trip through the School of Business, do 20 hours of documented civic engagement, complete a 120-hour internship, or participate in a School of Business student organization. Most online students opt for the volunteer work or internship, but more are choosing to join student organizations or study abroad.

Students pose with boxes of canned goods
Students collect canned goods for a food drive as part of the Involvement requirement of the Passport to Professional Success Program.

The sixth and final phase, Transition (Black Belt), is typically fulfilled during a student’s last year at UNCP. Each student must attend a career fair and complete a mock interview. Students can attend career fairs hosted by the university or other organizations; they complete mock interviews through the Career Center, meeting either face-to-face or via video chat.

The final event is the exit interview, which lasts approximately 30 minutes. Each student delivers a three- to five-minute presentation about a current event, answers questions about his or her experience at UNCP and the School of Business, and then undergoes a leadership assessment. Each interview is typically conducted and evaluated by two faculty members, and the information is turned over to the AOL committee as part of the School of Business assessment.

What We Learned

We have found that certain elements of the Passport Program are essential to its success:

Creating a Passport Committee. This group enforces program bylaws and guidelines, ensures the program is running smoothly, implements effective and timely programming, and markets Passport Program activities to students and faculty. The committee consists of the program director, the AACSB accreditation director, the AOL director, the Passport Agent, and a representative from each department within our School of Business.

Installing a Passport Agent. The Passport Agent tracks student progress, provides details about upcoming events, reviews content uploaded by students, and acts as the primary point of contact when students have questions about the program. In addition, the Passport Agent works with university officials to confirm student graduation dates and assists both the Passport and AOL committees with data collection. The program has now grown to the point that the Passport Agent, the program director, and graduate assistants share the responsibility for data management.

The Passport to Professional Success Program has become a unique learning tool for business students, benefiting them in ways that a traditional curriculum cannot.

Making the program mandatory. Students who do not complete the Passport requirements are ineligible to graduate. Because we have implemented a checklist for the Passport Program, students have a standard format to follow for completing the program concurrently with their academic requirements.

Housing the program within our learning management system. Having centralized data collection has helped us continuously track student progress. Through the LMS, we can communicate with students, upload resources, and collect data for AOL. We also use the platform to send announcements to students, who do not respond well to email marketing. In 2018, we switched to Canvas and integrated the entire Passport Program into the new LMS with minimal glitches. Each year, we review the content stored in our Canvas site to discover opportunities to grow the program.

The Passport to Professional Success Program has become a unique learning tool for business students at UNCP, benefiting them in ways that a traditional curriculum cannot. Even so, we know we must frequently evaluate content and make improvements so that we can be certain that our graduates are prepared to handle the demands of business today.

Keondra Mitchell
Lecturer, School of Business, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Christine Bell
MBA Program Director, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
William "Rick" Crandall
Professor of Management, University of North Carolina at Pembroke
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