Wake Forest Techies Put Knowledge To WorkWINSTON-SALEM, N.C.
Like many college students who study computer information systems, Derrick Thompson knows computer and Internet work experience means a great deal to future employers. As a high school student, the Robeson County, N.C., native developed his programming and Web design skills well enough to secure computer-related work in his hometown.
Since graduating from high school, Thompson, has counted on his admission to Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.— a school known for preparing liberal arts and business majors for the technology-driven workplace — to widen his prospects for landing practical summer- and intern-work experiences.
“It’s been opening doors for me,” he says.
Nevertheless, it came as a pleasant surprise to Thompson when Wake Forest officials last summer encouraged him to participate in a university-backed, student-managed information technology service organization. Participation in the project promised not only experience with managing and completing complex projects, but as founding members, Thompson and others would be urged to develop the organization in the same way entrepreneurs launch new technology companies.
“The work we’re doing is giving us a feel [for] the business world,” Thompson says.
Over the past summer and the fall semester, Thompson and four other students cultivated the Knowledge 2 Work program, an information technology services organization that has begun working with regional businesses and nonprofit groups to develop Web sites. The group has completed projects for the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem and several administrative offices at the university.
The founding students have been running Knowledge 2 Work much like a start-up business, operating from a business plan and negotiating contracts with clients. Although Knowledge 2 Work is subsidized by the university like a campus student group, Wake Forest officials believe the business model offers tremendous learning opportunities for student members even though the organization may not evolve into an independent business.
“We’re not sure what the end product will be, but we’re open to it being an independent nonprofit, an independent business or a student organization,” says Nancy Crouch, chief information officer at Wake Forest University. Program Helps Lower-income Students
Officials say it’s important that Knowledge 2 Work helps students from middle- to lower-income families, who have strong computer skills, earn an hourly wage by performing technical work for clients. Student members are paid $9.50 an hour for their work on projects. The ideal aspiration for the program is that its revenues form the basis of tuition support for its members, according to Crouch.
Knowledge 2 Work evolved from two other Wake Forest student technology programs, Crouch says. In 1996, the university created the Resident Technology Advisors (RTAs) program when a technology initiative provided IBM Thinkpad laptop computers to every undergraduate. Twenty RTAs, all undergraduates, were assigned to campus dormitories to provide computer assistance and troubleshooting.
A year later, the Student Technology Advisors (STARS) program was launched. The program paired tech-savvy students with faculty members for a semester. STARS members teach the faculty the skills needed to complete projects like building Web sites. STARS also seeks information technology internships for its members at the university, local businesses and nonprofit groups.
Crouch explains that Knowledge 2 Work resulted partially from the interest of university officials to provide tech-savvy students, regardless of their major, an opportunity to pursue information technology work with the back-up support of a student-managed organization. A group was needed that could reduce the risk STARS students had encountered after getting independent work opportunities with the businesses and organizations for whom they had interned, according to Crouch.
“We saw students get into trouble with obligations to complete work projects and struggle to complete their school assignments,” Crouch says.
By going after technology projects in teams and getting some administrative support from Wake Forest, Knowledge 2 Work is intended to reduce the type of individual risk some STARS students had taken on. Nevertheless, the chief benefit is that participating students develop business and technical skills, Crouch says.
“They’ve learned a lot on their own. They wrote three business plans,” Crouch says.
Lee Newitt, a Knowledge 2 Work founder and junior information systems/accounting major from Atlanta, says the group is learning the rough-and-tumble lessons typical for many business start-ups.
“We’re getting experiences not too many of our peers are getting at this age,” Newitt says.
Oscar Pilson, director of management information systems for the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem, has praise for Knowledge 2 Work. The group completed two Web sites for the authority, including its main Web site, <www.haws.org>.
The Web site “has allowed us at a reasonable cost to have a presence for our corporate identity. It gives us another way to tell the public who we are as an agency,” Pilson says. Knowledge 2 Work charges nonprofit organizations, such as government agencies, $22.50 an hour to develop Web sites. Businesses are charged $45 an hour for Web site development, according to officials.
This semester, the Knowledge 2 Work group expects to double its membership to 10 students, and expand its services into database development and other programming specialties.
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