Transforming the learning experience of students and providing an outlet for the University of Houston (UH) to support the community, UH's "Learning Through Discovery Initiative" engaged several students this semester in practical experience beyond the classroom, while benefiting a pair of social service agencies.
The Lighthouse of Houston and Legacy Community Health Services reaped significant benefits from UH using its research and resources to support their respective efforts and improve their services. College of Technology students worked on a Lighthouse certification project, while Jack J. Valenti School of Communication students assisted with some of Legacy's issues.
With its mission to empower clients who traditionally face problems with accessing quality health care, Legacy presented students from two of communication professor Jennifer Vardeman-Winter's classes with challenges related to how they communicate with their clients. Going above and beyond what the assignments called for, students from Vardeman-Winter's rhetoric and issues management classes went out into the community to interact with Legacy's clientele, rather than just reviewing the transcripts of client feedback that were provided to them for the projects.
"We were very impressed by the students for their creativity and useful feedback. They really took things a step further, and we'll definitely be taking some of their recommendations," said Amy Leonard, director of health promotions at Legacy. "It was a ‘win-win' situation, with us being able to provide them with real-life experiences to work for an actual organization and for us to benefit from another pair of eyes with a fresh perspective."
One student who is especially thankful for the experience is graduating senior Amanda Jolivet, who says her projects already opened doors for her with job interviews. Taking two classes from Vardeman-Winter this semester, she is pleased with the practical experience she gained in public research and for being given the chance to practice implementing theories and applying concepts from her classes to impact society through an actual client.
"Amanda is a hard-working, focused student who is ready to take on the world," said Alison Leland-McKinney, a lecturer in the UH Honors College who is on the taskforce working to bring research opportunities such as this into the community. "One of our goals is to have students use their skills in non-traditional ways and encourage them to think creatively in this market. In watching them present their final projects, we could see they really took these assignments to heart, investing themselves and offering tangible guidance to the client."
As for the Lighthouse of Houston, a nonprofit education and service center dedicated to assisting blind and visually impaired people to lead independent lives, it needed some help from the College of Technology. The Lighthouse has an industrial division that produces disinfectants, detergents, glass cleaners and floor care products for state and federal contracts, and it was looking to expand its business base. First, it needed to develop a quality management system that then would be certified by an outside auditor.
Jami Kovach, an assistant professor who has been teaching quality management at UH since 2006, was happy to help the Lighthouse, and she also thought it would make a good undergraduate project. She enlisted Gina Whitley, a UH student since fall 2010 who had some real-life experience working on a similar type of certification for a former employer.
"She brought a lot to this project. It was a really good fit," Kovach said. "The Lighthouse will achieve their certification, which gives the blind and visually impaired employees at the agency more opportunities to work."
Whitley worked 19 hours a week at the Lighthouse during the spring semester, and she and Lighthouse officials also met periodically with Kovach and Jerry Pyka, the college's assistant dean for outreach, to discuss the project's progress. Kovach and Pyka provided input and their expertise as the project moved forward and also conducted a crucial "mock audit" of the agency.
"This provided the proof, the evidence of their quality management system," Whitley said. "This certifies them to a higher standard. They already had high quality in their operations. This just proves it - and that counts with customers and potential customers."
Gibson DuTerroil, Lighthouse's president, praised the faculty advisers and the student's participation in the project.
"Without all of UH's support and guidance, we wouldn't have achieved this," he said. "The school can be so proud of the kind of students and faculty who are there."
UH's "Learning Through Discovery Initiative" is a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) designed to enrich the education of students and prepare them to compete in today's globalized marketplace, providing research-related skills training and undergraduate research opportunities on and off campus. The QEP was developed in accordance with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools reaffirmation of UH's accreditation, a process that that occurs every 10 years.
About the University of Houston
The University of Houston is a Carnegie-designated Tier One public research university recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the nation's best colleges for undergraduate education. UH serves the globally competitive Houston and Gulf Coast Region by providing world-class faculty, experiential learning and strategic industry partnerships. Located in the nation's fourth-largest city, UH serves more than 38,500 students in the most ethnically and culturally diverse region in the country.
For more information about UH, visit the university's Newsroom at http://www.uh.edu/news-events/.