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Barbara Blake Gonzalez stands in front of the Old Dominion University Monarch Internship and Co-Op office

Old Dominion University opened the Monarch Internship and Co-Op Office, led by executive director Barbara Blake Gonzalez, this summer to connect students to work-based learning experiences.

Old Dominion University 

A fall 2022 survey from Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse with support from Kaplan found 39 percent of students did not have an internship or experiential learning opportunity while in college. Asked how their colleges did in helping them find an internship, 38 percent of students rated their colleges a C or lower.

Many higher ed professionals are focused on adding internship opportunities and increasing participation. Leaders at Old Dominion University, for example, aim to better connect students with relevant work experience and break down barriers to access through the Monarch Internship and Co-Op Office, centralizing experiential learning opportunities across campus for all learners.

The inspiration: The office, new for this academic year, was born out of Old Dominion’s five-year strategic plan, which set a goal for all students to participate in an internship or other work-based learning opportunity before graduation by 2027.

“It really came to the top that our students—undergrad, graduate or continuing education, our certificate seekers—they really needed to be in meaningful learning experiences before they left our campus,” explains Barbara Blake Gonzalez, executive director of the Monarch Internship and Co-Op Office.

Work-based learning offers students a variety of benefits, including relevant experience in their desired industry, confirmation of their interests and career goals, hands-on application of learned concepts, and a chance to recover skills from pandemic-related learning losses, Blake says. “They are going to walk away feeling prepared, feeling confident, being a very competitive candidate in their future labor market.”

Blake believes the new office is also a way for the university to be innovative and entrepreneurial in meeting student needs. “Internships 10 years ago don’t look like they look today, especially after COVID,” she says. “You have to have an evolved thinking about what do internships look like here.”

The plan: University leadership designated the funding, space and personnel to develop the Monarch Internship and Co-Op Office this spring, and Blake came on as executive director in late June. The office, housed under the university’s Academic Success Center, will hire three additional staff members in the next month or so to support the work.

One of Blake’s first goals is to aggregate the existing programs at the academic colleges to create a shared database of all work-based learning opportunities on campus, whether that’s an internship, externship, practicum, co-op or another experiential learning program.

Many of the academic colleges are collecting data but not reporting them, so the office seeks to streamline communication and inventory of what’s available. The inventory will also provide guidance around where there are gaps in work-based learning across the colleges.

To make internships available to all 24,000 learners, Blake’s office will also establish or expand partnerships with outside organizations, with an emphasis on underrepresented majors or programs to ensure access.

In addition, the office will support faculty and staff members to promote learning initiatives that already exist in the curriculum, such as a K-12 teacher practicum, or emphasize opportunities for work-based learning.

Blake also has her eye on unpaid work-based learning experiences and how to increase equity and access, particularly those that remain unpaid due to accrediting body regulations.

“I am heavily investigating those unpaid, mandatory work-based learning experiences and how can we fix this problem, especially when you’re talking about industries that are traditionally led by women or underrepresented populations,” Blake says.

The next steps: Office staff will track key metrics regarding the internships themselves and student data to measure efficacies as they work toward a goal of 100 percent participation across the university.

The department will also be partnering with other campus offices, including the registrar and general counsel, to create a unified and streamlined process for work-based learning. Communication of the office’s services and resources for students remains a priority, as well.

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