UAFS sees rise in professional development students, plans to pursue more grant funds

by Aric Mitchell ([email protected]) 226 views 

Professional development and mentorship programs are picking up steam on the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Campus, and grant writing will be a much larger focus for UAFS in 2016 and beyond.

These were the major takeaways from the UAFS Board of Visitors meeting on Wednesday (Feb. 17) at the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center Board Room.

Also, the UAFS Foundation announced that May 13 and 14 would be the dates for 2016 Alumni Reunion Weekend, which will be unique this year in that it will honor three landmark classes of graduates from the school’s 88-year history.

The Babb Center for Student Professional Development (CSPD), which initiated certificate training for distinction in professional development in the fall semester of 2013, reported to Board members that program participation has almost quintupled in less than two years – rising from 115 students in May 2014 to 560 in February 2016.

Part of this growth was due to a controlled rollout, according to Program Director Ron Orick, who said the first year was restricted to business majors before extending to include the College of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) in the fall of 2015. The program has recently opened to the School of Education as well as Organizational Leadership majors, and will soon be available to students in the College of Communication, Language, Arts, and Social Sciences (fall 2016) and the Colleges of Health Sciences and Applied Science and Technology (spring 2017).

Of the participants who have either finished all (14 students) or one-half (19 students) of the program’s certificate requirements, the CSPD has achieved 100% job placement. The CSPD runs students through practice interviews and gives them access to networking mixers with representatives from major employers in the area, including ArcBest/ABF, Arvest, Baldor Electric, Walmart Corporate, Mercy, and, recently, JB Hunt. It also offers skills-based resume assistance, personal job lists, ePortfolios, VIP access to Career Fairs, and employer/job referrals, Orick said, though he admits the program’s perfect job placement record will be more difficult to maintain as student participation increases.

To build on this success, UAFS enacted the Mentor Connections Program in the fall of 2014. There were 45 participants in year one, according to Rick Goins, the University’s alumni director. The participants were divided into three camps of 15 each — students, young alumni mentors, and executive mentors from area businesses and organizations.

Of the 15 students, 14 graduated and were placed with an employer — 11 remain in the Fort Smith area. The other student will graduate in May 2016. For the 2015-2016 school year, the program has grown to 35 students, 35 young alumni mentors, and 35 executive mentors. Ten students are employed or holding offers from the new batch, Goins said, adding that for year two, UAFS has been able to maintain an 80% return rate from mentors, with 46 participating organizations involved in some capacity.

Edward Serna, director of Grants Management and Compliance for UAFS, said increased work to secure grants would be a major focus of his department in 2016 and beyond. He said they’re off to a good start with seven new proposals submitted totaling $403,000 and 17 active proposals that could net the University $5.028 million in funding.

One of the keys to being more productive with grant writing, Serna said, was to get ahead of deadlines and communicate available opportunities in a timely manner so faculty can decide whether they want to pursue an opportunity. To emphasize that approach, Serna said the department had identified and entered the pre-proposal phase on seven federal grants and two foundation opportunities worth between $5 million and $12 million beyond June 1.

For UAFS students, alumni, faculty, and administration, the 2016 Alumni Reunion Weekend will be a special one.

As the UAFS Foundation readies its major fundraising push for the year, it will recognize three key classes during the May 13-14 festivities: the Class of 2006, which was the University’s first group of four-year graduates; the Class of 1991, who graduated 25 years ago when the school was known as Westark Community College; and the Class of 1966, which was the first year of the then 38-year-old college’s switch from Fort Smith Junior College to Westark Junior College.

Fundraising goals have yet to be determined, according to Rodney Parks, the Foundation’s Senior Director of Major and Planned Gifts.