Employers are praising a consulting program launched this spring by the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus to support local businesses and prepare students for the workplace.
The campus’ Student Consulting course matched senior-level students with local companies and nonprofit organizations to offer analysis and assistance with special projects under faculty supervision.
“Overall, the program far exceeded what I was expecting,” said Pete Petersen, chief executive officer of Dealers United, an automotive industry digital marketer and one of four companies matched with the students.
“At the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, we are constantly looking for innovative ways to partner with the community and provide high-impact, experiential opportunities for our students,” said faculty advisor Greg Smogard, PhD, assistant vice president for innovation and business development at USF Sarasota-Manatee.
“The idea of the Student Consulting course was to partner with the business community to provide students with a real-world consulting experience,” he said. “The course was intended to present students with a unique opportunity to work closely with a company and to present the participating companies with the opportunity to work alongside our students for a semester.”
Similar to an internship or senior-level capstone class, the students were matched with companies to work on projects assigned by the employers. After initially interacting face-to-face, the students shifted to online communication to comply with safety recommendations regarding COVID-19.
The three-credit course was open to students of any major, but it attracted mainly business management, marketing and finance students. Smogard said he intends to resume the program in the fall based on positive comments from the companies and students involved.
“I’m extremely proud of the students and how well they performed given the unique requirements of the course,” he said. “They received excellent feedback.”
The course launched in January with students attending workshops and meetings with executives to learn about their companies. They also attended interviews at their clients’ offices, but as the pandemic unfolded, they shifted to online sessions to develop their methodology and recommendations. Clients were updated every few weeks on the students’ progress, and each week the students participated in whiteboard sessions with Smogard.
During the semester’s final week, the students delivered written reports and PowerPoint presentations with recommendations to the executive teams – comprised of two to seven members each – who were responsible for a percentage of each student’s final grade.
The students said the experience sharpened their analytical and presentation skills and provided valuable learning and networking experiences within a workplace context.
“This course is not just professors teaching and grading you. It’s more than that,” Lauren Blackwell, a Spring 2020 graduate and marketing major, said. “You’re dealing with professionals in the workplace, and you’re focused on their perceptions of your work and your performance outside of the classroom.
“This was the most collaborative and successful project I’ve ever been involved with,” she said.
Blackwell was paired with senior business management major Karen Cruz. The two analyzed potential markets for BuyerBridge.io, proprietary software developed and marketed by Dealers United.
The pair worked three to four hours each week, connecting remotely and checking in with Petersen every two weeks or more frequently if they had questions. Blackwell said the work required her and Cruz to conduct a more thorough analysis than is typical of classroom assignments.
“When you’re in a classroom, you can do marketing and promotions management and write promotional plans, but you don’t get that interaction with an actual client,” she said. “But with this course you work with real clients regarding their real businesses. It definitely showed me a different side of the advertising industry.”
Petersen said he was impressed with the results and happy to support the program.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to have a university spend time on your business, especially with students and faculty directly involved, and it doesn’t cost you anything and you have a chance to assess top talent, for me it’s a no brainer,” Petersen said.
“You’re getting a fresh, unfiltered perspective,” he said. “I would recommend any business to do this if they have the opportunity.”
Biology major Brittany Targaszewski said she was unsure whether to take the class when she heard about it from her academic adviser, but she came away convinced after meeting executives from the company she was matched with, wound-care products developer Omeza.
She worked with fellow student Sophia Alvarez to explore potential new markets for the company.
“I had never done anything like this before,” Targaszewski said. “It was an amazing experience working with my partner and Dr. Smogard. He helped us a lot with the basics of consulting. We would have a team meeting with him every week to go over our research and talk about what to work on next.”
Alvarez, who graduated with a marketing degree in the spring, said the program’s real-world context and focus on in-depth market research make it ideal for business students looking to transition from college to the workplace.
“It’s definitely a senior-level class,” she said. “Dr. Smogard is there to keep you on track, but it’s not like a class where you’re guided every step of the way. You work as a consultant and you have to put forward the time and effort.”
For its part, Omeza said it was happy to support USF Sarasota-Manatee students while also gaining useful market data.
“We gave the USF Sarasota-Manatee team a market potential and feasibility project that is a very realistic opportunity for expansion for Omeza over the next two years, and their valuable research, insight and recommended next steps gave us a very real course of action for our company to pursue,” President and COO Sarah Kitlowski said.
“As both a USF Sarasota-Manatee alum and member of the community, I am very proud of the effort and caliber of work put forth by the team,” she added.
Likewise, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Manatee expressed support.
Michael Wood, development director of outcomes and grants, said the students conducted a geographic analysis – examining population trends, land costs and development patterns – to help the nonprofit explore possible locations for new facilities in East Manatee County.
“Their presentation was to me and President Dawn Stanhope,” Wood said. “They did a great job and they gave us a lot to think about. I would definitely recommend this program to a business or nonprofit group that has a special research project.”
To learn more about the Student Consulting program, contact Greg Smogard, PhD, at email@example.com.
For more about USF Sarasota-Manatee, visit http://www.usfsm.edu.