Paola Ortiz came to the University of Miami no stranger to community service, but her decision to major in business brought her up close and personal with an entirely new community outreach experience.
This semester, Ortiz and eight other freshman business students are working to develop an informational pamphlet for the Center for Autism & Related Disorders (CARD). It is designed to market the organization and spread awareness about autism.
The project is part of one the school’s courses, in which students work together under the guidance of a teaching assistant to create a project for a local nonprofit organization (NPO), focusing on developing effective tools for messaging, marketing and branding for the NPOs.
This collaborative effort aims to help students develop the interpersonal skills needed for teamwork in the business world.
Last year, Vice Dean Linda Neider introduced the course as a part of the F.I.R.S.T. Step Program (Freshmen Integrity, Responsibility and Success through Teamwork), a program created to provide freshmen the opportunity to learn about civic engagement, business practices and ethics.
The course, which is mandatory for freshmen, involves lectures on Mondays and Wednesdays and a separate section on Fridays in which the freshmen, divided into groups of eight to 10, meet with a student teaching assistant.
The lecture portion of the course focuses on acquainting students with the functional areas of business and issues entailing social responsibility, business ethics and social entrepreneurship.
It exposes freshmen to introductory principles and prepares them for the more rigorous concentration classes they will take later on in their college careers.
Ellen McPhillip, the assistant dean of the School of Business, said that this course ensures that when freshmen enroll in upper-level courses, they are not blind-sighted by topics and terms.
She added that this innovative course helps freshmen decide which major they wish to pursue.
The group portion of the course offers freshmen the opportunity to interact with peers and NPOs in the Miami area. This year, the groups are working with 17 different organizations.
“Together, as a team, they develop solutions,” McPhillip said of the freshmen groups.
Nadja Koch, a senior marketing major who served as a peer mentor in the course last year, saw great benefits of the new program.
“The course introduces freshmen to a higher level of business class coursework than they normally would have gotten early on,” Koch said. She added that the TAs help acquaint freshmen with resources of the business school and can help them build contacts up the hierarchical chain.
“As a TA I learned how to guide others and emphasize the shared experience of getting along,” Koch said.
Koch finds that the skills she acquired as a TA help her in her role as an Academic Fellow in Stanford Residential College.
“I have more insight into what freshmen struggle with in class,” she said, which helps her in advising the students on her floor.
Ortiz recognizes the benefits of having a peer mentor. Her TA, Melissa Hebra, helps the group work together to apply the business principles learned in class to produce the informational pamphlet for CARD.
Peer mentors are “wonderful touchstones for the freshman experience,” McPhillip said.
“She gives insightful advice,” Ortiz said of her peer mentor. Ortiz also spoke of her group dynamic positively.
“We all work really well together so far,” Ortiz said. “I’ve been really lucky.”
Koch described the group project experience of the course as invaluable, both for her and for the freshmen.
“It’s great for students to do something of that magnitude early on,” Koch said.