The University of South Florida is connecting students and local companies as a part of a new Student Consulting class at the Sarasota-Manatee campus. The three-credit, semester-long course matches local companies and nonprofits with senior-level students to assist on projects and offer in-depth analysis and recommendations – all under faculty supervision.
“We were especially excited to interact with the students to hear their perspectives,” said Carrie Rasmussen, community engagement director at Easterseals Southwest Florida–Happiness House, one of three local employers recently involved in the program. “Their enthusiasm for the project led to a professional and complete final report that included good and sustainable suggestions, even prompting some fresh ideas on our end.”
“USF is continually seeking new ways to partner with the community while also preparing our students for the workplace,” said course instructor Greg Smogard, assistant vice president for innovation and business development at the Sarasota-Manatee campus.
“The Student Consulting course provides students with hands-on consulting experience that they can carry with them after they graduate,” he said. “This helps local businesses, who are able to hear an outsider’s perspective, along with faculty guidance, and it helps the students as they move forward in their careers. I’m extremely proud of the students and they received excellent feedback.”
The program debuted a year ago. Most students in the course are business majors, but it’s open to students of any major. After speaking with executives and conducting research, they deliver PowerPoint presentations with customized analysis and recommendations.
Accounting senior Sophie Kiehl, 22, said the class helped to hone her research and presentation skills while deepening her understanding of nonprofits. She and her teammates were matched with Easterseals.
In addition to offering analysis and a range of marketing options, the group studied the charity’s philanthropic mission and history. Operating in Southwest Florida for 75 years, Easterseals provides services to individuals with disabilities – from 6 weeks old to a person’s senior years – and to their families to help them live life to the fullest.
“It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun,” Kiehl said. “I liked that we worked with an actual company on real issues and that we did something we might all do after we graduate and enter the workplace.”
Another student, business major Brett Szalbirak, was paired with FCCI. Along with other students, he helped analyze COVID-19’s financial impact on the insurance industry.
“It was a great experience overall, and I liked that it wasn’t a traditional class,” Szalbirak said. “It teaches you a lot about project management. You definitely have to be self-disciplined to keep on track with meetings and research and not rush to get your work done at the last minute.”
Established in 1959, FCCI provides commercial property and casualty insurance, surety and risk management services to policyholders in 20 states plus Washington, D.C. The company supports USF’s School of Risk Management and Insurance, based on the Sarasota-Manatee campus, and the campus’ rotunda is named for FCCI.
“The student team we worked with accepted the challenge, solicited and was receptive to feedback, and the students put forth the effort to learn about our industry and organization, the project topic and our expectations,” FCCI Managing Director of Internal Audit & Governance Jessica Markun said.
Students participate in one-on-one interviews with Smogard before signing up for the course. They spend several weeks learning how to work as consultants, then they meet with company executives and learn about their assignments. Once the assignments begin, the students provide weekly updates to Smogard while also discussing strategies and next steps.
Business management senior Michael Mastroianni said the course was unlike any of his traditional lecture-based classes because it allowed him to immediately apply what he learned to an actual business scenario.
“This is a really fast-paced course that will test your marketing, finance, communication and management skills,” he said. “It allows you to utilize all that you’ve learned and apply it together in one class, and you’re working with an actual company. I loved it.”
The students were graded on their level of engagement and final presentations.
Mastroianni and his teammates performed market analysis for Sarasota-based Cumberland Advisors. Founded in 1973, Cumberland helps individuals and institutions meet their financial needs through carefully tailored advice and proprietary investment strategies.
“We worked with five students and found them all to be highly professional and engaging,” Regional Director of Investments Todd Engelhardt said. “They conducted themselves much like ‘Big 4’ consulting professionals. The team understood what we are trying to accomplish and provided valuable insights. The outcome was productive for us and the students.”
President and Chief Executive Officer John Mousseau added: “The consulting project is a great experience for firm executives to ‘step outside’ and not only work with excellent students but embark on seeing how other people – beyond existing clients and vendors – see them. It is an institutional hazard to get trapped in your own biases, and working with the students takes that curtain away. It was a refreshing way to recalibrate how we think of ourselves.”
To learn more about the Student Consulting course, contact Smogard at email@example.com.