An exemplar in mentoring and professional development: teaching graduate students transferable skills beyond the discipline.

Author:Weisblat, Gina


Dante, who in the Inferno explores hell, takes careful notes and is able to capitalize on the lessons he learns from others. Understanding and applying lessons from challenging experiences and giving them context provides today's society with the best leaders of our times. Knowing how to maneuver through arduous tasks, staying motivated and committed, and finishing with strength is what Cleveland State University (CSU) believes embodies the very nature of its students. Creating opportunities for intellectual curiosity and advancement by utilizing existing assets can transform our practices in the university community. Assets exist in universities beyond those that we traditionally see (e.g., economic). The university must unlock this capital and employ it for the greater vision and fulfillment of its mission. The use of the Graduate Grant Writing Center (GGWC) by university stakeholders (faculty, staff, and students) employs the same influences found in the community building and capacity process. There are many tools available for organizations to self-assess, build capacity and connect with outside resources. In recent years, most of the literature has focused on capacity.

This paper will show how capacity cannot be achieved or exercised without first recognizing and utilizing existing assets and understanding how these assets blend internally and externally to achieve their maximal use. Learning how to then take this blend of existing assets, and extend it one step further (to capacity) allows us to leverage these assets to create a solid foundation for organizational efficiency and effectiveness. The GGWC has employed this process of utilizing existing CSU assets (faculty, support programs, and student organizations), building capacity through collaborative mentoring and teaching, ultimately establishing a new framework for teaching, and modeling an effective center for 21st century skills within an environment that promotes guidance and skill, trust, and a balanced norm set of integrity and ethics. The Carnegie Perspective provides the nurturing yet firm ethical and normative structure needed to build on existing and new skill sets; increase innovation, creativity and collaboration, and make the most of the potential energy that exists within the framework.

CSU's Mission, Students, and Trends

According to The Commission on the Future of Graduate Education (2010), U.S. graduate education is a strategic national asset. Like all valuable assets, it must be nurtured to remain viable and strong. Strengthening higher education--specifically graduate education--is an investment in our future. In a recently released report, the Council of Graduate Schools and the Educational Testing Service (Wendler et al., 2010) noted that graduate education faces somber issues, the most critical being low completion rates. Furthermore, between 2008 and 2018, the number of jobs that require a graduate degree will grow by 2.5 million, which translates to a 17 percent increase in those requiring a doctorate and 18 percent in those requiring a master's degree. (Wendler)

CSU is an urban public institution of higher education located in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. CSU is dedicated to creating quality programs; attracting, retaining and graduating students, and helping them to find satisfying career paths in the local economy, thereby increasing the economic growth of the Northeast Ohio region. Consequently, there is an institutional emphasis on professional education that has relevance to the local and regional economies; nearly 85% of the over 100,000 CSU graduates remain in Ohio as leaders in business, finance, government, communications, engineering, education, information technology, law and health--all essential to Northeast Ohio. The idea and practice of interdisciplinary research is a core part of CSU's mission, intertwined with its graduate and professional education programs. The University believes that approaching challenges as opportunities is critical to its success, and thus focuses on its own assets and those of the surrounding community--drawing on the natural talent, connections and positions that exist. Also vital is the process of building capacity that comes from the success of meeting CSU's mission. The university is distinguished by its recognition that the greatest needs of all its students--graduate or undergraduate, full time or part time, hometown or international--are stable financial support, connectedness and networks, and strong academic support services that can assist in attaining degree goals and successfully putting those degrees to use.

Nearly 90% of CSU's student population works at least part-time while attending classes. This is a critical factor, as many of our students need financial support to supplement their already rigorous life of work, family and school. Additionally, Exner (2010), in reporting on findings from the Ohio Census Bureau, noted that one out of every three Clevelanders lives in poverty. In 2009 an estimated 35% of the city's population lived below the poverty line--up 5% from the previous year. Cleveland was ranked second (behind Detroit) as the poorest large U.S. city in 2009. Since the majority of CSU's students are from Cleveland and its surrounding communities, the Census Bureau figures have a particular resonance. Located in the center of the city and seeing daily evidence of its students' financial and social conditions, the university has committed to supporting students with funds and, more importantly, support systems to help them to persevere in their studies, obtain degrees, and become effective contributors to the 21st century workforce.

Support Programs -Cultivated as Assets to Support GGWC

CSU support for current and future graduate students is included in the Title III Strengthening Institutions Program (SLP) (First: 2006--2011, Second: 2009--2014). The SIP provides grants to help eligible institutions of higher education (IHEs) become self-sufficient and expand their capacity to serve low-income students by providing funds to improve and strengthen academic quality, institutional management and fiscal stability. Some of the programs that CSU offers have built a tremendous foundation for recruiting students to GGWC and providing on-going additional support to their scholarship and success.

Support programs that GGWC has utilized provide continuous assistance to its students through programs and services such as Academic Advising, Academic Skills Sessions, Career Planning Seminars, Cultural Enrichment Opportunities, Computer Application Workshop, Financial Aid Guidance, Graduate School Preparation, Leadership Development, Peer Mentoring, Tuition Assistance, and Tutorial Services.

One such program is the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which provides students with critical academic, research, and professional experiences, including faculty mentors, to enhance competitiveness in gaining admission to graduate programs. Additionally, Graduate Assistance in Areas of National Need (GAANN) funds graduate fellowships in academic programs to assist students with outstanding records and credentials who need financial aid to enroll in graduate programs and pursue the highest achievable degree in their chosen fields, so long as those fields have been designated as areas of national need.

Improving Rates of Diversity By Drawing on Existing Assets

These programs and many others offered at CSU have helped to increase diversity of enrollment while raising persistence and completion rates. However, assistance programs, though they reach many students, do not reach all of them--in fact some programs, by their eligibility requirements, preclude participation by many students. The university, over the last two years, has identified gaps in its service to students (i.e., inadequate funds for a given population), and determined that assets must be cultivated and applied toward graduate degree completion rates and preparation beyond the classroom to ensure career success. The growth of global economies and international learning communities means that traditional notions of what knowledge and skills advanced students need to carry with them into the marketplace are no longer sufficient. In a world that changes daily, expanding graduates' skill sets is crucial because those skills may quickly become obsolete outside the academy (Ng, Eby, Sorensen, & Feldman, 2005), failing to leverage human capital for career advancement (James, 2000; Sagas & Cunningham, 2004). The task for graduate education in the 21st century will be twofold: (1) to sustain the specialization of the discipline, and (2) to encourage students to initiate and pursue creative avenues within changing industries in this global economy.

Leadership at CSU realized the twin needs of training for career opportunities outside academia as well as mentoring students academically and in ancillary professional development programs to provide the non-academic and critical transferable skills (grant writing, collaboration, peer mentoring, public presentation skills, ethical training in research techniques and practices, and network building) that will prepare master's and doctoral recipients for a wider range of employment opportunities.

The College of Graduate Studies, at the behest of Dr. George Walker, Vice President of Research and Graduate Studies, began to look for ways to assist students in their search for financial support that would help them persist to graduation. A committee of four (Associate Dean of Graduate Studies, Director of the CSU Writing Center, a newly-hired Special Assistant to the Vice President, and the Pre-Awards Manager from CSU's Office of Sponsored Programs and Research) was charged with creating a center that would help students to find external tuition and research dollars and provide them workshops and other forms of assistance to help them persist to graduation and...

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