The SUNY Oswego Department of EXCEL: Experiential Course and Engaged Learning recently won the "Excellence in Employer/Community Collaboration Award" at the SUNY Career Development Organization (CDO) Conference in Albany over the summer. 

The award celebrates community partnerships built for the Focus Forward mentoring program and a service-learning course, “Leadership in Your Field” (GST 303).

The Focus Forward program spans five school districts and connects college students with middle and high school students for individualized mentorship experiences. SUNY Oswego’s college mentors provide academic support and social activities to help the school district mentees find confidence and belonging. 

“EXCEL’s staff have worked tirelessly over the past year to re-establish connections and collaborations with the greater Oswego community in the aftermath of COVID shut downs and restrictions,” said Michelle Bandla, assistant vice president for academic support, and previously director of EXCEL. “Our service-learning programs give students opportunities to earn credit while developing their career readiness skills and giving back to their community.” 

GST 303: “Leadership In Your Field” was reinstated over the past year, after it was deactivated in 2020. The EXCEL team says the course was completely re-envisioned and launched in summer 2022 in the midst of a new learning management system. The three-credit service-learning course guides students through the process of creating a digital portfolio they can later use in their professional career. 

Setting up success

Jennifer Joyce, the Focus Forward coordinator on the EXCEL team, said these programs set students up for success as they enter the job market.

“With a lot of our courses we create these pathways for success… For example, in GST 303 we have an assignment in there that’s looking for your internship,” Joyce explained. “So now you’ve put the research in and you’ll meet with our internship coordinator, and you have that assignment as your step in for your internships. You also create the digital portfolio, and that’s yours to keep, so you can use that while applying for internships and employment.”

Bandla spoke about the importance of their curriculum, saying they encourage students to think critically about their experiences.

“Students can go out and volunteer but that’s not service-learning. Service-learning is the curriculum and educational pieces that are attached to it that they earn the credit for, and it’s about reflection,” said Bandla. “It’s about really thinking, how did I make a difference and why was I volunteering in the first place? … It helps students become part of the community.” 

While the service-learning courses may begin as a required credit for some students, Joyce explained that something about them keeps students engaged and wanting to come back. 

“At first, a student may be required to take a GST course, but many of the students I work with keep doing it,” said Joyce. “That service-learning sticks with them and even if they don’t take a course the next semester, they’re still doing the service, which I think is amazing.” 

Some service-learning opportunities are also offered throughout their college career, keeping students involved.

“With Focus Forward, they can take those courses up to eight semesters, so they can continue with it through their senior year, which is great for us because we get experienced students, but it’s also great for new students taking the class because the experienced students can be ‘mentors’ to the new mentors!” Joyce explained. “It just keeps building and the possibilities of success are endless.”

Additional recognition

At the SUNY CDO conference, two SUNY Oswego staff, Gary Morris of Career Services and Tina Cooper of EXCEL, were elected to serve on the executive board as president and president elect, respectively. 

EXCEL and Career Services also presented four educational sessions about social identity, career readiness integration in the curriculum, multi-generational workplaces and student employment.  

In addition to this honor, the Oswego City School District Board of Education was awarded the Champions of Change Award from the New York State School Boards Association for their partnership with Focus Forward, citing the program’s uniqueness and ability to be a model for schools statewide. Joyce also received an individual award from the Central New York Career Development Association for her work as Focus Forward coordinator. 

Joyce says the program would have not received this recognition if not for the community’s support along the way.

“We have to provide letters, one of them being from our community partners and the strong relationships that we have,” Joyce said. “They’re expressing that strong relationship in those letters of support. So we can talk about our amazing program, but now it’s someone from the outside telling them how amazing the programs are as well and how they’re helping the community.”

Bandla is not only grateful for this award, but also for the SUNY CDO prioritizing service-learning. 

“I think SUNY CDO is really starting to recognize experiential learning as part of their portfolio. It’s always been very career services focused and I think now they’re beginning to expand some of the experiential learning pieces and how that’s an important part of career development,” said Bandla. “It’s so great to be a part of those organizations (SUNY CDO and CNY CDA) who value experiential learning and what we’re doing. It’s been building some great partnerships.”