When Crystal Woods, a senior psychology major at Arizona State University, was applying for college, she felt overwhelmed. An aspiring first-generation college student, Woods was uncertain about the process, from admissions to financial aid. And even after arriving on campus, she felt alone and confused about what college was supposed to be like.

“I was just sort of like, am I supposed to be in school right now? Should I have done a gap year? Should I have been closer to home? These were some questions I had,” Woods said.

Today Woods feels more confident in not only herself, but her ability to succeed after graduation — and she credits much of that growth to Arizona State’s Work+, a program that maximizes the impact of student work and is designed to empower student workers to engage more meaningfully with their work.

“We knew it could lead to positive outcomes as far as students’ view on their experience and their time at ASU, but also development of their career readiness and career preparation while they were actually at the institution,” said Brandee Popaden-Smith, Arizona State’s director of Work + Learn.

Approximately 80 percent of all college students are employed while completing their undergraduate education, according to the Review of Educational Research, and many of them work for the institutions they attend. But how can those institutions reimagine the working learner experience so students not only earn money that helps them pay for their education, but also develop skills that prepare them to succeed in their careers?

That’s the motivation behind Work+ and its affiliated program, the Work+Collective, a consortium of 17 two- and four-year institutions across the country working to redesign student employment. Through existing student work opportunities, the Work+Collective institutions offer mentorship, student reflections, peer feedback, and educational programming intended to help working learners develop their sense of identity, agency, and purpose, as well as to enhance workforce preparedness.

At its core, Work+ and Work+Collective are designed to create more equitable outcomes for students who face the most barriers to postsecondary and career success — namely, first-generation college students, students of color, and students from low-income backgrounds. Across the country, these historically marginalized students come from families with lower household incomes than the national average of their peers, making it necessary for them to work to pay for school and interfering with their ability to pursue professional development opportunities such as internships.

At Arizona State, the program got its start when Sukhwant Jhaj, the dean of Arizona State’s University College, saw an opportunity to move away from the transactional model of student employment and instead turn it into a professional development experience that integrates work and learning.

A team formed, several groups were invited to participate, and a Work+ pilot program launched in fall 2020. For the next two years, the Work+ team iterated on the experience every semester based upon the feedback they were getting from pilot participants — a move that positioned the institution to be awarded a $250,000 Phase 1 Beyond Completion Challenge grant from Strada Education Foundation in fall 2022 and enabled the university to open Work+ to the entire institution.

More recently, a $1.5 million grant from Strada supported expansion of Work+ to cover all 12,000 working learners at Arizona State, plus the launch of Work+Collective at collaborating institutions around the country. In addition, a website, workpluscollective.org, provides shared learnings and resources that other institutions can learn from or adopt and information about events and experiences that allow other universities to collaborate and engage with each other.

“The website is the tool or the mechanism we’re using to try to bring that network of people together,” Popaden-Smith said. “Helping other institutions, who maybe don’t have dedicated resources or the time or the opportunity, they can see our network as partners and collaborators.”

Some of the institutions that joined Arizona State in the Work+Collective already had been working on their own approaches to redesigning student employment. When Samara Reynolds arrived at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2018 as executive director of career services, she partnered with the new leadership in the school’s financial aid office to change the way the institution approached employment for students. “We started to map out what’s good about our process and what still needs changing. How can we keep improving this?” Reynolds said.

Last year Virginia Commonwealth interviewed current student employees and student employee supervisors and learned that students’ supervisory relationships are one of the highest predictors of student success and satisfaction in their roles. That finding led the university to prioritize reducing the ratio of student employees to student supervisors in departments where the ratio had been outsized.

“Our hope is . . . that it will become a consistent, positive, sustainable, impactful experience for both the students and their supervisors,” Reynolds said, adding that the university has even bigger hopes for the Work+ program. “Certainly we want to see all of this work reflected in student retention and student post-graduation outcomes because we know if they’re having career readiness-oriented experiences on or off campus that we can help to make as robust as possible, that’s going to lead to ideally more positive outcomes for them in their employment or other goals after graduation.”

Meanwhile, Work+Collective member institution Northern Arizona University is putting the resources to use in identifying the gaps in voices being heard around student work. For example, Northern Arizona learned that supervisors of working learners didn’t have the time and attention to pour into the supervision side of their jobs.

“They’re not necessarily trained on ‘How do I be a good supervisor?’ and … ‘How do I make sure the students are having a quality experience while I’m also trying to do my day-to-day job?’” said Karlee Moxley, assistant director, student employment. So now, in addition to focusing on skill-based training and on-the-job learning for students, Northern Arizona is focused on making sure supervisors understand the value of connection and experiential learning.

Woods, the working student at Arizona State, ended up with two Work+ roles: She started as an assistant in the office of experiential learning and added a second job as a peer advisor, in which she helps exploratory studies students build class schedules and explore majors and minors.

“I’ve worked other jobs within ASU, and although it helped me build my communication skills or just working with people and such, it didn’t help me fully expand on career competencies and how I can apply them to other experiences,” she said, noting that Work+ “gave me a lot more confidence in who I am and knowing myself.”

Is your institution interested in joining the Work+Collective?

Reach out to Brandee Popaden-Smith, Arizona State’s director of Work + Learn, for more information.