02/21/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Service Learning: The Missing LInk

This semester there are 11 University of Colorado Denver students putting together a health fair for Bayaud Enterprises. Most are ready to graduate. Some are even ready to become adults. By the end of this project, a few more might be ready to become adults.

These 11 seniors make up Dr. Yvette Bueno Olson's Multicultural Health Communications class. In just a couple months most will be cut free of the campus bubble and released into the wild. But not before Dr. Bueno Olson gives them a real world experience through a required service learning project.

Service learning is a method of providing personal and academic development through work with established nonprofit organizations in the community. It is an avenue to introduce students to a professional environment without the extensive commitments of an internship.

Universities across the country are pushing service learning. And for good reason. Service learning provides students with an opportunity to work in a professional setting. It also gives many undergrads their first introduction to supporting underprivileged populations within their community, often inspiring volunteerism well beyond their project. But, perhaps most importantly, it gives them a distinct advantage in the tight job market.

A 2012 Associated Press analysis of government data found over half of recent college graduates were unemployed or underemployed. Unemployed means the graduate moved back into his mom's house and spends much of his time hopelessly sending out resumes -- and probably playing World of Warcraft. Underemployed means your barista could tell you a hell of a lot about 19th century English Literature.

Avoiding slinging lattés or mom's "my house, my rules" seems to not be so much related to how many resumes a student sends, but what is on that resume.

The National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise conducted a study way back in 2006 that still applies today. They found that participating employers and recent college graduates agreed on the necessity of out of the classroom experiences. According to the study, "They particularly emphasize the importance of providing students with important knowledge and skills but also experience putting those knowledge
and skills to practical use in "real-world" settings." More specifically, 76 percent of employers put "Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group
settings" at the top of their list of desired capabilities in fresh employees.

Bayaud Enterprises and the University of Colorado Denver address these needs through our partnership in service learning. Groups of students work in small teams to plan, organize, and execute events such as our spring Healthy Family Fair and our annual winter holiday party for nearly 500 of our service users and their families. At the end of their class, each student can tell an interviewing employer about her real world experience pulling off a successful event with a team.

But before she can garnish any job application, the student has to start the semester in an unfamiliar environment. She'll go into a professional conference room and meet people who have been working in the field for years. And they will tell her an entire nonprofit organization is relying on her to make something happen.

"It's not always in the safe zone, and that's okay," says Suzanne Stromberg. Stromberg coordinates all service learning and internships for the University of Colorado Denver's communications department. She also teaches Senior Seminar, which frequently provides students to assist with planning Bayaud Enterprises' events.

Stromberg sees it as part of her responsibility to break a student out of a protected campus mindset and get them ready to perform in professional environment. After several semesters of guiding this program, she has identified a pattern to service learning for the students.

"It's uncomfortable for the students at first, but they almost always end describing it as great or life changing," Stromberg said.

Joshua Ruiz would likely agree with Professor Stromberg. He is a pre-med student and a veteran of Dr. Bueno Olson's Multicultural Health Communications class. His group worked to provide health information to primarily Hispanic adolescents involved with the Cllaro organization.

Ruiz admits it wasn't easy at first. "It was challenging...because we were dealing with people." He laughs. "That's always hard."

The group began by all attempting to perform the same tasks. They quickly discovered the inefficiency in that approach. They then separated responsibilities and put one student in charge of each of those different areas rather than duplicating duties. They found playing to their strengths a much more successful -- and enjoyable -- method of educating the kids.

In other words, they learned to work as a team. 76 percent of employers would be pleased to hear that.

Today, Ruiz is strong proponent of service learning. "I think everything we do in the classroom has to be applied. Otherwise, why are we doing it?...You're going to have to get out there eventually."

With a little push by University of Colorado Denver and a bit of guidance from Bayaud Enterprises, students will get out there sooner rather than later. And the earlier they get out there, the earlier they'll be able to get out their parents' house. Maybe they'll even serve a few hundred less lattés before landing the first job in their career.

Bayaud Enterprises is here to help with that. Because we understand Employment Matters for everyone, even young adults.

To make a difference and support Bayaud's critical employment programs, visit