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Effective Practices

Effective Practices: Willamette sets the PACE in Service Learning

Social responsibility, community service, and experiential learning may be hot buzzwords in MBA circles these days, but they’re longstanding traditions at Willamette University’s Atkinson Graduate School of Management.

In Atkinson’s PACE (Practical Applications for Careers and Enterprises) program, first-year MBA students learn by doing ambitious, year-long consulting projects for non-profit and government organizations, such as setting up a profitable recycling program for St. Vincent de Paul to digitizing the paper records system for the Oregon Department of State Lands and Land Use. Second-year students help vet nominees for the Oregon Ethics in Business Awards.

The program itself has won plaudits, including GMAC’s 2010 institutional TeamMBA Award for putting business students in the business of giving back. Willamette and the Naval Postgraduate School are the only two schools worldwide accredited by both AACSB International for business administration and the National Association of Schools of Public Affairs and Administration for public policy.

The PACE Program is the centerpiece of Atkinson’s full-time MBA Program, specifically for students early in their career or changing careers. By working within and outside organizations, students apply what they are learning in the classroom to the inner workings of the private, non-profit, and government sectors.

The first-year consulting project, part of a two-semester core course, provides valuable, resume-building experience. “Through the year-long course, they have to revisit decisions they have made, unlike a case study, where decisions don’t come back to you. And there’s the team aspect, where they’re learning to meet their goals through other people,” said Judy O’Neill, associate dean and director of admission.

The program melds academic knowledge, practical experience, and career management training through service to others, an embodiment of Willamette University’s motto, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born.”

“Giving back to the community is a huge piece of this as well,” said Russell Yost, director of marketing.

Willamette alumnus Yost was one of the early graduates of the PACE program, which was piloted in 1996. Back then, first-year students had to come up with a proposal to raise money for a non-profit, apply for a loan, and turn a profit for the organization by April. Today, the eight-person consulting teams are assigned projects much larger in scope and use the entire year to make as much progress as they can.

In the 14 years since the program was launched, word of its benefits to the non-profit and government community has spread. Now, local organizations have national and international competition for student talent from groups such as the Chicago Children’s Center and the Burundi Friends Center, which are both working with student consulting teams. These projects give Oregon students the opportunity to work remotely and on global issues such as microfinance, O’Neill said. At the end of the semester, student teams give formal presentations that are judged on the value they have provided to their organizations.

In the second year, students interview stakeholders, shareholders, and employers to vet nominees for the Oregon Ethics in Business Awards. Being external evaluators forces them to look at what they’ve studied about ethics and sustainability in a critical way and think about how things may be improved.

It’s knowledge, it’s practical experience─and it’s also a savvy career move. “They sit across the table from movers and shakers in Oregon and learn to evaluate organizations and people against a standard,” O’Neill said. “It’s a wonderful networking opportunity.”

GMAC’s TeamMBA celebrates MBA students and programs worldwide that put business students in the business of giving back. By registering and submitting your students’ charitable events on the TeamMBA site, your school will be eligible to win a TeamMBA Award.

With Effective Practices, Graduate Management News offers an occasional look at distinctive programs at GMAC member schools. Recently featured programs include Suffolk’s part-time global MBA, Warwick’s global distance-learning MBA; Cornell’s customizable immersion program, National University of Singapore’s MBA with real estate specialization, and NYU’s joint MBA/MFA program for aspiring film producers.

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