Once, the public felt that a university’s main purpose was to provide a well-rounded blend of humanities, math, science, and other academic skills. That expectation has shifted in recent decades. Now an overwhelming majority of working adults believe that the primary aim of higher education should be to prepare students for work. “There’s a big push now for students to have internships and work experience while they’re in school,” Roberts says.

Traditionally, the most meaningful career preparation often happened outside universities in the form of internships. But now that society looks more to universities for career training, administrators are seeking ways to provide it in-house. And at a time when the costs of education are rising, it’s only logical that the student and the university would combine resources. This convergence has reinvented the student job.

he University’s biggest employment program is Federal Work-Study, available to students who qualify through financial aid. Two non-need-based programs are available as well, the Miami Commitment and Student Assistant programs. Miami Commitment, established in 1990, is specifically designed to build career skills over a student’s entire undergraduate experience. It places incoming freshmen into jobs relevant to their career interests. The largest on-campus employer is the Wellness Center, where students work as front desk attendants, fitness instructors, or computer assistants. Other coveted jobs are programming for Student Activities and working at the Richter Library. There are jobs in research at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and at the School of Medicine. They’re a far cry from photocopying, though clerical positions are available as well.

The pay for on-campus jobs ranges from minimum wage to more than $10 an hour. And while a student might find a higher-paying job off campus, he or she would face the added pressure of commuting and the possibility of being scheduled for a double shift during exam week. By contrast, working on campus is flexible and convenient. Supervisors understand that studies come first. Work can be arranged around exams and the academic calendar. Hours are normally kept below 20 per week. Financially, it’s a good deal for the University. Because students work part-time, earning straight pay for hours, there are no fringe benefits to drive up payroll expense. Actually, there are lots of fringe benefits, but not in the monetary sense.

Student hires also improve the quality of service at the University. “Students are, because of the selectivity of the University, highly intelligent and responsible,” says Grisel Valdes, director of student employment and assistant dean of enrollment management. “Students are committed to this University because they’re part of this institution.”

In the Office of Admission, student employees are very valuable because they bridge the University with applicants. They talk to prospective students and often act as peer advisors for freshmen.

Alumni Relations employs 80 students as “Calling ’Canes” for its Annual Fund. These students earn competitive salaries during evening hours that don’t conflict with class time. It’s a highly coveted job because, among other reasons, it’s fun. Students call alumni not only to ask for contributions but also to update them on the University and tell them about events. More often than not, the students bond with the alumni over their common experience. Additionally, because many of the Calling ’Canes are on scholarship, the students impress upon alumni the personal difference their financial contribution makes.

Ginger Tuttle, associate director of the Annual Fund, pairs student callers with alumni in similar fields whenever possible, so that music students call music alumni, and so on. “Alumni will ask, ‘Is Dean Hipp still at the music school?’ or ‘Is a certain dorm still there?’” Tuttle says. Some schools outsource fundraising to call centers, a practice that puzzles her.

One alumnus asks his caller to sing the school’s alma mater before he agrees to a donation. Can someone at an outsourced call center do that? For that matter, can every Calling ’Cane do it? “Yes,” Tuttle says and laughs. “We include it in our training material. We will do anything to increase alumni participation.”

It’s easy to see the advantages of employing students in alumni relations and other areas that connect the University to its community. But the benefits are just as great in non-student-related areas, though they may not be readily apparent.

“For offices that don’t deal directly with students,” Roberts says, “it’s a good way of knowing who the students are and why they’re there. The people in those departments help in the education of the students, which they wouldn’t ordinarily get to do. They are mentoring students or teaching them the ropes.”

Even the simplest job trains a student how to operate in a business environment, how to answer the phone properly, how to speak to adults—valuable skills that build confidence. Student employees also say they feel more connected to the University community. If a school-related problem arises, they’re comfortable approaching an administrator for help.

“I consider student employment part of the student’s total education,” Valdes says. “The experience doesn’t necessarily have to be major-related, but it does communicate to future full-time employers a graduate’s ability to successfully manage academic and work responsibilities.”

Some students aren’t even looking for jobs when they find them. Senior Kathryn Russell and junior Karrune Woan responded to an e-mail call for volunteers in the Department of Dermatology and Cutaneous Surgery. Within two months, they were paid clinical research trainees, and more enthralled with the work than they ever dreamed. As part of a cancer study led by Professor Sung L. Hsia, Russell and Woan help cultivate cancer cells and test treatments. “The results are very exciting,” Hsia says. “When treated with our material, the cancer cells go through apoptosis, or programmed cell death.”

Because of the job, Woan and Russell already have publications to their names, a valuable asset for applying to medical school. When the research was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Investigative Dermatology in Rhode Island in the spring, both of their names were on the posters. Before working with Hsia, both Woan and Russell were curious about research, but certain that they wanted clinical careers. Now they’re looking for ways to incorporate research into their future career plans, and the hands-on experience has helped them understand their coursework at a much deeper level.

enior Rachel Ingram works 20 hours a week for the Computer and Technology Group. She took the job initially because she didn’t have a car and wanted the convenience of working on campus. “I ended up getting a lot more than that,” says Ingram, Student Employee of the Year in 2003.

Ingram has edited and helped develop the course materials for the UM Office Specialist program, a 40-hour certification course in Microsoft Office applications. Her supervisor, Patrick Alexander, director of the Computer and Technology Group, was a newcomer to the University from the world of business and never expected to turn so much responsibility over to the students who work for him. “What has struck me is the enormous resources they offer,” he says. “They are very, very bright. They’re young and have enormous energy. It’s a fabulous win-win from my point of view.”

Alexander’s students interact with the public and are exposed to real-world pressures. The department has a set budget, he explains, and it must be adhered to. Ingram had always been interested in business, but she is pursuing a double major in anthropology and art history. “Working around Patrick has attracted me to the business realm again,” she says. After graduation, she would like to find a way to combine business with her majors. Already, she has prepared a two-hour course to introduce the children of migrant agricultural workers to computers and the Internet. She is the business mind behind Fusion, an on-campus dance organization that she cofounded with a friend.

It seems that the only drawback to employing students is that, eventually, they graduate and move on. Roberts mentions one student in her office whom they call their “tenured work study.” He’s the IT guy, and he’s indispensable, she says. What will they do when he graduates?

“We’re not letting him graduate,” she jokes.

Some students do stay on after graduation. Andréa Espinosa, B.S. ’03, worked part-time in Media Relations while studying public relations and sociology. She says the job showed her the big picture of public relations. Her transition to full-fledged employee dovetailed neatly with her graduation, and she happily skipped a potentially nerve-wracking job-search process.

Orestes “Oreo” Hernandez, B.B.A. ’01, stayed at the University for a short time after graduation, and then he landed his current job—an account executive for the Florida Marlins. While studying business administration and sports management, he worked at the Wellness Center, assisting with the Mini ’Canes summer recreational program. He then became the business manager for The Miami Hurricane student newspaper. After graduating, he worked in Athletics with box office sales. Hernandez says his newspaper experience taught him the ins and outs of dealing with clients, and the box office job has helped him handle the (sometimes fanatical) Marlins fans. In short, the University prepared him for his job.

Which is really the point of an education that integrates real-world experience with coursework, as opposed to keeping the two separate.

“Work experience is part of the mission of educating students,” Roberts says. “Making sure they are well-rounded means educating them not only in the classroom, but outside as well.”

Lyn Millner is a freelance writer in Hollywood, Florida. Photos by John Zillioux.

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