Student Volunteers

Leveraging Town-Gown Partnerships

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The Ellensburg Downtown Association (EDA) in Washington State has reached out to Central Washington University (CWU) to form successful partnerships that offer students internships, volunteer tasks, and projects, most of which focus on promoting downtown Ellensburg. A great way for Main Street programs to reach students is by speaking in classes, reaching out to university clubs and organizations, and posting internships on the school's website and other job sites. This is how EDA's executive director, Timothy Bishop, CMSM, met Hilary Davidson. A senior recreation and tourism major at CWU, Hilary recently did her practicum with the Main Street program.

Ellensburg
Ellensburg Downtown Director Timothy Bishop works with students from Central Washington University.

Hilary completed 120 hours of work with the EDA and directed a number of projects, including producing a children's activity book, writing 50 fun facts about Ellensburg, and working on Downtown Ellensburg's nomination for the National Geo Tourism Project. (The National Geographic Central Cascades Tourism Project is a joint project with National Geographic and the Oregon and Washington State tourism programs to promote geological and cultural tourism sites throughout the central cascades.) Like many interns who thrive when given exciting opportunities to gain real world experience, Hilary appreciated being given responsibility for developing those activities. EDA's trust in her to complete distinct projects allowed Hilary to develop her leadership skills while building her resumé.

Hilary believes Timothy has helped her reach her professional goals, provided her with opportunities and experiences that are hard to come by in the classroom, and got her started with networking. "I strongly feel that these projects have and will benefit me in my future job outlook," says Hilary. "It has really stretched my abilities and I have learned and experienced many different things. I have also done work that I can put on my resumé."

Employers and students have more to gain when forming an intern partnership than building resumes and expanding the volunteer pool. "What makes working with the community worthwhile for students, I think, is it gives the community a different perspective because the work is coming from a young college student," says Hilary.

Ellensburg residents value the thoughts and opinions and appreciate the new ideas CWU students bring to the table. The internships also enable local residents to see what students are learning and how they are putting their education to practical use. Through these partnerships, business owners build a lasting bond with the college community, and the surrounding city as a whole.

EDA has also built a successful partnership with CWU's Public Relations Students Society of America (PRSSA) club. PRSSA is a national nonprofit group that focuses on networking with the community as well as other chapters and members of professional companies. Journalism and public relations students wrote articles and press releases showcasing local nonprofit and business successes downtown and publicizing the EDA's efforts to strengthen the commercial district.

Timothy contacted PRSSA last fall about working on eight different stories that would promote downtown. Topics included the use of web 2.0 tools by nonprofits, stories about local mom and pop businesses and restaurants, and the partnership between the local community and CWU students. The students worked in teams for each story. Students interviewed local business owners to gather information and quotes and then wrote press releases and articles that were sent out to local, state, and national media.

This partnership has given the students valuable hands-on experience and sharpened their public relations skills. Members of PRSSA have become more comfortable with interviewing, writing, pitching to the media, and networking. Stories generated by PRSSA students have been recognized by state and national publications; Northwest Travel Magazine, for example, published a feature on local Ellensburg restaurants. This has created a buzz in the community and led other community groups to get involved in Main Street projects.

Downtown Ellensburg has benefitted from the students' ability to capture media attention for locally owned businesses and to place articles that have turned Ellensburg into more than just a "drive through" spot. With increasing media hype about the town's classic charm and new savvy restaurants, Ellensburg is becoming more of a destination.

Ellensburg Downtown Association Awards Lunch
PRSSA students Kerri Benecke, Ashley Scrupps, and Bree Escarcega pose with PRSSA mentor Simon Bowers at the annual EDA luncheon.

EDA recognized PRSSA's involvement with the Main Street program by awarding the group its Outstanding Public Partner Award. The Washington State Main Street Program also recognized PRSSA's contributions in helping CWU win the program's Outstanding Public Partner Award.

"The CWU students have been great partners for our local Main Street program. Campus groups like PRSSA have helped us pull together great events like the emerging entrepreneurs' symposium and spread the word about all of the great changes and success stories downtown," says Timothy. "Having a group of young professionals like the PRSSA club promoting the importance of downtown and all of our success stories has been invaluable. Individual students have also become great advocates for downtown and our revitalization efforts, helping us promote downtown among their peers."

"We are so excited about the success of this partnership. The collaboration has provided real world, hands-on opportunities for students to showcase their public relations skills. The Ellensburg Downtown Association has gained help in promoting the heart of downtown and its success stories through various means," says Ashley Scrupps, former CWU PRSSA president. "It's wonderful that this dedicated partnership was recognized by receiving the excellence in partnership award and partnership of the year. It has proven to be a benefit for both organizations." 

Tips for working with students
By Kerri Benecke and Timothy Bishop

  • Contact students two to three weeks after school starts. This will allow the club enough time to recruit new members, and will give your Main Street program a chance to ask for a partnership before another organization does.
  • Assign one student to be in charge of the entire project. To reduce the chances of miscommunication, this person should also be the primary contact with the Main Street program professional. This leader should schedule meetings and delegate tasks to other group members.
  • Small groups within a club, two to three students, work best for partnerships.
  • The student leader should communicate the progress of the group’s project/task to the Main Street program staff or the volunteer who is supervising them.
  • Give students a list of easily completed, bulleted tasks that need to be done.
  • Main Street program contacts should give students information well in advance of their deadlines, because they are also doing school work and other activities.
  • Hold monthly meetings with all students and Main Street staff or volunteers involved in a particular project to communicate progress. Additionally, there should be weekly updates via e-mail or phone.
  • If assigning a student or student groups a project that requires skills or experience they are still mastering, offer them assistance by providing resources or training, or involve a teacher or club leader to help them develop new skills.
  • When a project or task is completed, the Main Street program contact should edit or review the work to ensure that it was completed as desired.
  • Understand that students will not be readily available at certain times – such as during midterms and finals which usually take place a month and a half into the quarter and a week before the quarter ends. Nor will most students be available during Spring Break, which is generally the third or fourth week of March. It’s helpful but not always possible to schedule around these conflicts.
  • A great way to thank students for volunteer work is to hold a luncheon, nominate the partnership for an award, or offer outstanding students an internship.
  • Main Street program leaders should understand that while students acquire a lot of knowledge in the classroom, they may not have much real-life experience using their new skills. Main Street can provide those opportunities, but the manager or volunteer working with students should provide coaching and support, especially when young people are working on intimidating tasks like making cold calls to media. It’s just as important to provide positive feedback throughout the project as it is to recognize and celebrate successes.
  • Communication is especially important. From identifying the project or activity and establishing the scope of work through implementation and project wrap up, much of the communication between students and Main Street is likely to be electronic – e-mail, instant messaging, even social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Determine how information will be communicated and then make sure that both students and Main Street liaisons are comfortable with the tools being used.
  • Main Street managers and volunteers should be prepared to act as mentors throughout the process, not only by helping students complete the project but also by ensuring that the experience is rewarding both academically and professionally.
  • Students bring a unique set of skills, talents, and insights to the partnership. While guidance and oversight are important to success, students also need the freedom to bring their own ideas to the project and test new skills as part of the effort.