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A decade of readiness: The Professional Readiness Program celebrates ten years

January 28, 2019 - 8:37am
UNIBusiness Editor
UNI students participate in professional readiness training

The beginnings of what became the Professional Readiness Program® (PRP) were prompted by a pointed question.

Kevin Steere (Accounting ’67), then on the Dean’s Executive Advisory Board, and then UNIBusiness Dean Farzad Moussavi decided to meet for lunch in Seattle, near where Steere worked at the time, to discuss matters related to the college.

Moussavi cut right to the chase.

“He asked me, ‘What did UNI not deliver to you when you were in school?’ ” Steere said. “And then we chatted a little bit about it.”

Steere had much in mind. While the education at UNIBusiness was integral to his success, Steere believed there was a missing link between the classroom and the real world of business. After graduating from UNI, Steere, a Cedar Falls native, moved to Chicago to start his first job at what was then the accounting firm Price Waterhouse. It was a culture shock, to say the least.

“It was quite the transition for me,” Steere said. “There were 90 individuals in my training class when I started, and they came from all different cultures and nationalities. I had never dealt with such a wide range of diversity. Some exposure as a student would’ve been wonderful.”

Steere and Moussavi also discussed the importance of students learning letter writing and business communication for networking events. These were crucial career skills students weren’t being exposed to in the traditional classroom.

The deficit in soft skills was evident in the professional world, too. When following up with companies regarding interns, the leadership at UNIBusiness discovered its students seemed afraid to speak up in meetings, but when they did, their input was valuable.

All of this fueled the discussion between Steere and Moussavi in 2007. Near the end of lunch, Steere gave Moussavi a pointed statement of his own.

“I just told Farzad, ‘Let’s start this program,’ ” Steere said.

Finding success

In 2008, with modest funding and goals, UNIBusiness started the pilot program under the name of the Professional Skills Initiative. The courses weren’t required, as they are now, and about 60 volunteer students signed up.

One of the first events was a business etiquette class.

“It had all the silverware and all of the glasses, and instructors told us what glasses to use, what silverware to use,” Steere said. “A lot of the students hadn’t been exposed to that.”

During those early years, the leadership of the college sought constant feedback on the program and what to include. Steere called it a “trial and error period.” It continued to grow, and in 2010 UNIBusiness launched it as a full program with a new name—the Professional Readiness Program.

All students were required to take classes to graduate. While that wasn’t very popular at first, students eventually warmed up to the idea.

“I’m most proud that students now see the value in the program,” said Katie Hillyer (Marketing '09), the current director of PRP. “When it was first launched, it was viewed as a zero credit program that they were forced to do. I think we’ve made tremendous strides in students’ opinions of the program and showing them that PRP adds value to their marketability and professional readiness.”

Hillyer was first involved with the program as member of the Presidents’ Council student group when the Professional Skills Initiative launched in 2008.

In 2010, when the program took a big step and became PRP, Hillyer was working in corporate relations at UNIBusiness. Her job was to find alumni and professionals to speak during the workshops. In 2013, she was promoted to director.

She has led the growth and expansion of the program.

Now PRP offers four levels, the first two of which are required. Level one focuses on the basics: starting a career, identifying personal strengths and kick-starting collegiate life right. Level two dives into more specific topics for skill and career development: innovative and collaborative thinking, emotional intelligence and communicating with confidence. In level three, students choose the topic they feel is most beneficial—from how to manage in a multicultural, multigenerational environment to preparing for the Microsoft Excel Specialist & Expert certification. In level four, students work with an alumni mentor to further define the steps and skills necessary to meet their personal and professional goals.

The success of PRP is evident ten years later, as the program has become an asset for the thousands of UNIBusiness graduates. Many students cite their PRP skills on résumés and during job interviews.

“I am blown away at the success of it,” Steere said. “There has been a lot of work and a lot of thought put into it, but I’m very pleased that it’s gotten this large and popular. It exceeds my expectations.”

Into the spotlight

Ross Mecham, director of organizational development at Virginia Tech, has worked with PRP for a number of years and has a unique perspective on the program, given his work with many different institutions across the nation. He said other universities are taking notice.

It’s not just Mecham saying that. PRP was named a “best practice in business education” by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) in the college’s most recent accreditation review.

“Everywhere I go, PRP is the model program,” Mecham said. “It’s the link between a business school and organizations that are looking for fresh job candidates. PRP does that beautifully, and it could be a model for how we add value for both the students and the organizations looking to hire our students.”

It’s not hard to see some of the results of PRP through the alumni and instructors who have experienced it.

Jessie Cruise (Marketing ’15) went through PRP, served as a peer mentor as a student and is now returning to the program as a trainer. Cruise, who works in human resources at Principal Financial Group, said those courses were unique and invaluable to her career.

“I thought the content was very useful,” Cruise said. “I really liked the energy there, and I liked that there were different speakers every week. I would say that my experience was really, really positive, and it was unique to have those classes to teach me those skills.”

PRP was also recognized in the fall issue of BizEd magazine, a leading business school publication. Sarah Noll Wilson (Theater Performance and Education ’03) contributed to the BizEd coverage and teaches a PRP workshop about innovation and how to create an innovative culture within teams.

For Noll Wilson, the soft skills paired with the ability to network and meet actual professionals makes PRP unique.

“I think it’s powerful to give students additional exposure to people who are practitioners in the field,” Noll Wilson said. “It’s not just from an academic perspective, which is really important, but the ability to talk with those who have real-life experiences.”

Even though PRP has gained a spotlight on the national stage, there are plans for even more growth.

Hillyer is continually increasing the topics available at level three to give students more choices and more incentive to taking the optional levels. In level four, mentors are essential for the success of the program. Hillyer encourages alumni to reach out and see how they can help.

Hillyer’s goal is for at least 50 percent of UNIBusiness graduates to complete all four levels of PRP. But to do that, students must recognize the value of the optional levels.

“I learned early on that one of the most important factors in getting students to actually learn in this zero credit environment is to show them the relevance of the training to their professional development,” Hillyer said. “There isn’t a stick attached to PRP’s courses in the form of a grade, so we need to intrinsically motivate the students with career carrots.”

Over the course of PRP’s life, it has changed to meet the needs of students, and the future looks just as bright for a program that was just an idea a decade ago.

“PRP truly lives up to its name,” Mecham said. “Those students are ready to interview, ready to impress recruits and ready to work with a skill set others don’t have.

“The most impressive thing is that it’s still relevant today. Sometimes you put something in place, and ten years later it’s no longer relevant. PRP continues to evolve, continues to stay relevant, and I think that’s important for students.”

UNIBusiness thanks the those who donate to the Dean's Fund for Excellence. Funds raised help pay for student organization competitions, global experiences and professional credential education.


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