University of Akron’s new EX[L] Center will help match students to hands-on work experiences

February 9, 2016 -

 
AKRON, OH (by Beth Thomas Hertz, Crain’s Cleveland Business) – The University of Akron is making a commitment to get its students more “real world,” hands-on experience through its newly formed Experiential Learning Center for Entrepreneurship and Civic Engagement – or EX[L] Center for short. The center doesn’t officially launch until March 2, but its team is already at work, including holding the first of what is planned to be monthly “BluPrints to EX[L]” panel discussions at the Blu Jazz + club in downtown Akron.
 
The free event on Feb. 3 focused on “Embracing Risk and Ambiguity as Opportunity.” Encouraging attendees not to let fear of failure stop them from trying new ventures were EXL founding director and executive-in-residence Jeff Hoffman, Blu Jazz+ owner and Akron developer Tony Troppe and David Kay, M.D, founder of OrthoHelix Surgical Designs, an orthopedic device company that sold for $125 million a few years ago.
 
Ian Schwarber, resource director for the EXL Center, said the event’s focus on innovation partners well with the center’s goal of giving every student the opportunity to work off campus in ways that expand his or her education. The center will match students with the “massive inventory of experiential learning already going on in silos across the campus” as well as create new opportunities for them, he said.
 
Those opportunities will include traditional internships and co-ops, but also will include options for students who may not be able to work in an unpaid job for an extended period. Examples could include partnering a student with a city official to help solve a specific problem, or mentoring at-risk youth in the Akron Public Schools, Schwarber said.
 
“We want to connect students with smart thinkers in our community and give everyone options to work and learn in the real world,” he said. “It will help them stand out as they enter the job market, giving them a pivot point to discuss in an interview. It develops their character and their resume, and helps the community at the same time.”
 
Said UA president Scott Scarborough, “We have committed at least $500,000 to get this going.” In addition, the center is receiving grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Burton D. Morgan Foundation.
 

“We want to connect students with smart thinkers in our community and give everyone options to work and learn in the real world…”
- Ian Schwarber, Resource Director at EX[L] Center

 
Scarborough said the university historically has linked internships with many of its strongest academic programs, such as engineering, and the EX[L] Center will build on that legacy.
 
“It will leverage that existing strength and expand into arts and sciences,” he said. “We want rich, experiential opportunities in all majors. It’s where students learn the most.”
 
According to the university, 78% of students who earned a bachelor’s degree in spring 2014 participated in at least one learning experience before graduating, and their starting salaries were 14% higher than students without such experience.
 
 

The team

Scarborough called the center’s leadership team a perfect balance. Hoffman, a member of the founding team of Priceline.com, brings years of entrepreneurial expertise. Schwarber, who received a bachelor’s degree from UA in 2013 and served as president of the Graduate Student Government from 2014-2015, brings a young perspective. Carolyn Behrman, an associate professor in anthropology and classical studies who will serve in a two-year rotating spot as faculty collaboration coordinator, brings her experience matching students with experiential learning.
 
“Jeff is a perfect person to lead this,” Scarborough said. “He connects well with people and knows how to maneuver complex organizations. Partner him with Ian, who knows the University of Akron and is young and energetic, and they make a great team. But since we don’t want to step on toes where great programs already exist, Carolyn is a huge asset as well.”
 
“This is the right team, and this is going to be big,” Scarborough concluded.
 
 

A mentor

For Hoffman, who has had success as an entrepreneur in many areas, being part of the EX[L] Center gives him the opportunity to share his passion for encouraging people to chart their own future. His message for students today: “Design a life that works for you.”
 
As a child, he dreamed of traveling, but in his first job as an engineer, he found himself stuck in a cubicle. Becoming an entrepreneur was his ticket to greater self-determination.
 
“I am not an entrepreneur for the money, but for the ability it gives me to set my own future,” he said. “I am blessed to be able to do what I want, and mentoring helps me give back.”
 
He believes the EX[L] Center is well-positioned to help today’s students forge their own paths as well.
 

“The center is about actually doing things ‒ grabbing a shovel and getting busy..”
- Jeff Hoffman, Founding Director & Executive-in-Residence at EX[L] Center

 
“Akron is a small enough city to get this done and large enough to have an impact,” said Hoffman, who also travels around the world with the U.S. State Department’s Global Entrepreneurship Program to mentor youth and women.
 
He isn’t sure how many years he will be part of the center and described himself as a problem-solver who prefers to build things, not run them. But he knows it’s a good fit for now.
 
“The center is about actually doing things ‒ grabbing a shovel and getting busy.”
 
Behrman also is excited about her role, which she describes as working within the UA structure to create “a new sense of distinctiveness” that helps the university offer a stimulating education to all students. She said some of her work will involve inventorying existing experiential programs as well as helping bring new ones to fruition.
 
“I want to help support, advertise, highlight and connect people and programs,” she said.
 
She anticipates returning to her teaching role after her position with the EX[L] Center rotates to another faculty member.
 
 

Events

The Feb. 3 event was co-sponsored by the University of Akron Research Foundation and JumpStart Entrepreneurial Network. Tobin Buckner, Akron entrepreneurial community manager for JumpStart, said his organization sees Akron as the next center for entrepreneurship in both technology and nontechnology sectors.
 
“People talk about scaling up. We think there is a lot of energy and activity toward the entrepreneurial culture here,” he said.
 
Buckner described the event as connecting students with organizational leaders and entrepreneurs.
 
“There is a lot of mixing and mingling, some intended and some unintended,” he said. “We hope it will start to create a buzz around Akron and new business opportunities.”
 
The monthly events will focus on topics of interest to business, particularly entrepreneurs. The next one, also at Blu Jazz+, coincides with the official launch date of the EX[L] Center – March 2.
 
Speakers will be GOJO CEO Joe Kanfer; John Zogby from Zogby Analytics and co-author of “First Globals: Understanding, Managing, and Unleashing Our Millennial Generation”; and Courtney Gras, a UA graduate who is co-founder and chief operating officer of Design Flux Technologies LLC.
 
“These are a great opportunity to network or find a mentor, an investor or a friend,” Schwarber said.
 

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