By Beth Black and Amy Pajewski
In the second installment of our two-part interview (read Part I here), student success librarian Amy Pajewski and I discuss the challenges that went into designing and launching her student leadership program—and how she and her institution have overcome these hurdles.
Beth Black: How did you support students as they took on this leadership work?
Amy Pajewski: It was really important to me to give students autonomy in their work—to really show we valued and respected their ideas and insights while allowing them to take ownership of their successes. However, getting students to feel confident in themselves after years of being relegated to the desk took some time.
Each semester began with a kick-off meeting introducing students to the strategic semester plan and expectations for each group. I also created their own Office 365 space where they were able to connect with one another, take meeting minutes, keep track of deadlines and assignments, and reach out to me when they needed help making a campus connection. We were lucky in that we were able to retain the former Teaching and Learning Librarian’s office, so students had their own space and computer to do their work. That space might’ve been the best perk of the job because often I’d find them in there off-the-clock studying or hanging out.
As the semester went on, additional trainings were conducted for each group. Some of these included public speaking for the Ambassador Team, reference training for the Peer-to-Peer Educators, and event planning for the Outreach Team. Once the teams had the basics, students within their team began cross-training other teams so they were always learning from each other.
My role then became more of a facilitator role—one where I would help guide students to align their work within the strategic documents and teach them how to interact with different campus populations/constituents. At the end of each semester, myself and our Library Technician would conduct performance evaluations which gave students the opportunity to self-evaluate and identify potential areas of growth for the following semester.
BB: In your presentation, you noted that you used the AAC&U Essential Learning Outcomes and High-Impact Practices as you designed the experiences of your student employees. Please tell our readers about how you used these key higher education documents.
AP: It was really apparent to me that connecting only with the library and college’s strategic plan weren’t necessarily sufficient in getting students ready for work outside of academia. I saw the program as a High-Impact Practice in itself. In the broadest sense, it serves as a learning community for our students, and a place where they could explore a common intellectual experience within their work. However when it came to hard, employable skills, I turned to the AAC&U essential learning outcomes and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) to help align what students were doing within the library to the greater employment landscape. Using the latter two documents as a guide, I created a performance evaluation tool to map areas so students could see where they could improve. But, I think it’s important to note that using these documents in a vacuum can seem disconnected—students might not understand why these are the evaluative tools if it’s not explained in the beginning how these skills are marketable and how they’re obtained through their day-to-day work, whether at the help desk or while speaking at an event.
Before a student graduated, I made sure to sit down with each and work on what I called an exit-interview. Students brought me their resume and we talked about how to frame library work in the context of their field, or internship, or whatever job they would be interviewing at. I think because of the NACE and AAC&U competencies, students had a language to use when talking about their work to potential employers. For example, instead of just putting on an event at the library—students could say they developed communication and public speaking skills as well as learned to work collaboratively with a team.
BB: What are some challenges you have overcome in transitioning your student employee experience?
AP: When I first started the program, I think I gave students too much autonomy and not enough information. I assumed they’d be able to make the connections on their own between the strategic plan and what that means in real life work. I struggled to give them direction and it took some time and reflection for me to realize that in order for this to work, I needed to be more explicit and honest. I found that actually telling students the mission, vision, plan, and the process by which an institution develops these documents to be essential to providing them some context for WHY they’re doing what they’re doing. Without explicitly telling students why their work is important, or how it contributes to the mission, the project will fail. I think students need to feel personally invested in the work and have a sense of purpose to fully participate and make it their own.
BB: What are some things I haven’t asked that you want to be sure readers know about this topic?
AP: There is a HUGE time investment in creating a program like this. It took several months of planning on my part just to get the first iteration off the ground, and that first iteration failed. I think what’s important here is designing a program that fits your students’ needs while aligning with the University’s goals. Once you’ve mapped a plan, ask the administration for what you need. When you use higher ed principles and language, administrators respond, which only leads to more opportunities to grow students into future leaders.
Amy Pajewski is the Student Success Librarian and an Assistant Professor at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she leads a team of teaching librarians, focused on enriching the first and second year student experience through information literacy. As liaison to non-academic departments, she collaborates with student success initiatives across campus, including the summer Academic Success Program and West Chester’s First-Gen Initiative. Her research interests include cultivating communities of practice, gen ed information lit instruction, and library impact on student success.