Business students help under-represented and disadvantaged community members learn skills needed in today’s job market.

By:    Date: 12-07-2015

ARTICLE BY OLIVIA GRIDER  |  PHOTOS BY JAMIE MOON AND POPI LEDBETTER

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During a conversation in August 2014, Lisa McKinney, an accounting lecturer at The University of Alabama, and David Hose, a business graduate student, discovered they had similar ideas about community service – they wanted to be involved, but weren’t sure what they could do or how to get started.

“I can’t build houses because I don’t have construction skills,” McKinney says. “I can’t provide medical care. What could I do to help the community? I thought, why don’t I just create something where I do have some skills? I felt like I could teach. I could use these skills I have.”

Hose had an idea about teaching Microsoft Word, Excel and basic accounting in Haiti after a service trip to that country in 2013. He mentioned to McKinney the possibility of a similar project in the Tuscaloosa area, and it turned out she had been mulling over the same notion.

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A student helps a community member polish her resumé.

Little more than a month later, they and a host of UA student volunteers were holding the first LIFT (Learning Initiative and Financial Training) classes, with a goal of providing job-skills training to under-represented or disadvantaged groups in the community.
To ensure the topics they taught would benefit community members, Hose and McKinney researched job postings and found a need for basic computer skills was a commonality in almost all of them. So they forged ahead, gathering materials, recruiting instructors and advertising the program to potential participants.

“Everyone just jumped in and started running with it,” McKinney says. The UA Culverhouse College of Commerce dean’s office and Culverhouse School of Accountancy provided administrative and financial support, and students from three groups – the Business Honors Program, the AC 210 Honors Intro to Accounting  course and the Beta Alpha Psi accounting honors society – signed on as instructors.

“I found a lot of students enjoy teaching and would enjoy reaching out to the community in that manner – teaching computer skills,” McKinney says.

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Each class has one primary instructor and several assistant instructors who provide individual attention to LIFT participants.

Classes began at a community center and a church the first week of October. By November, 15 classes were being held each week. While they planned to offer only Introduction to Microsoft Word and Introduction to Microsoft Excel during the first phase of the initiative, instructors also taught courses on resumé writing and interview skills and a Financial Freedom class about savings, investing and budgeting and launched a youth business initiative that uses games and other activities to teach kids about entrepreneurship.

During Fall 2014 and Spring 2015, more than 500 UA students taught more than 650 community members in 32 courses per week for eight to 10 weeks. Courses included Computer Literacy, Microsoft Excel for Beginners, Microsoft Excel Intermediate, Microsoft Word for Beginners, Microsoft Word Intermediate, Microsoft PowerPoint, QuickBooks accounting software and bookkeeping, Financial Literacy, Me & My Taxes and Keyboarding Skills. Classes were held at five locations primarily in West End and Holt, two underserved, high-poverty neighborhoods in the Tuscaloosa area. At the conclusion of six-week courses, participants attended receptions where they received certificates of completion from the University.

“Everyone we have taught has been so attentive, kind and appreciative,” Hose says. “I hoped we would have a fair amount of interest and participation, and I was very happy to see this come true. I also was very pleased with the diversity of the classes. We had several Colombian women, a young Brazilian woman, an Iranian family and many African-American students.”

On campus one day a week, UA faculty train student instructors on leading the classes. Each course has one primary instructor and several assistant instructors who offer individual attention as participants, who are paired at laptop computers, work through lessons. McKinney calls instructors “guides” or “coaches” because teaching programs like Excel and Word is not a lecture environment. “You guide people through the steps,” she says.

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A student leads a resumé-writing workshop.

During training sessions for UA students, the group discusses how the program works, class structure and how to interact with community members. Students also complete the exercises they will coach participants through during the classes. Because students have taken courses corresponding to those they will teach, they don’t have to learn the content itself.

Business Honors students are primary instructors and serve a leadership role in the initiative. The highly selective Business Honors Program requires its students to be substantially involved in a service initiative each semester, and a number of students now choose LIFT as their project. Business Honors students earn two credits per semester, and students working with LIFT have received credit through MGT 497 Special Topics and GBA 481 Business Honors Seminar I. Students provide weekly, written updates to professors and give a final presentation on their project at the end of each semester.

Forrest Hames, a Business Honors student and senior majoring in finance, says working with LIFT made him realize how different other people’s experiences can be from his own. “My high school required computer classes, and I assumed everyone did that,” he says. “This showed me how many people reach working age without having what in today’s world is considered a basic skill. It showed me that something as simple as a couple hours a week of training could possibly change someone’s life and has really reinforced the importance of community service and helping others to me.”

Business Honors students are involved in developing LIFT curriculum and deciding how the program should adapt as it moves forward. McKinney says this is good for the future of the initiative because there is a mix of business majors – accounting, marketing, management, finance, MIS and economics – among the Business Honors group. As the program expands, accounting majors can teach basic bookkeeping, finance majors can teach financial literacy, marketing majors can teach communication-oriented topics and so forth. “Everybody can capitalize on their strengths,” she says.

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Accounting lecturer and LIFT founder Lisa McKinney assists a community member with a Microsoft Excel lesson.

In addition to improving participants’ job skills, McKinney says LIFT is filling a social need for both community members and UA students.  “A lot of people in the Tuscaloosa community who are not involved with the University yearn to interact with us,” she says. And students, many of whom are from outside Alabama, say they want to interact with people in the community and get to know the culture.

Hose says LIFT has shown him the importance of synergistic relationships. “As teachers and students, we learn from each other,” he says. “So while I was teaching somebody how to do Microsoft Word or Excel, they were showing me how to reach people better. Having the diversity in the classes was huge in this regard, and these things will benefit me in my career because public accounting is a people-driven business.”

Through LIFT, students learn skills in communication, teamwork and training that will be vital in the professional worlds they enter after graduation, McKinney says. “To be able to sit down and explain something to someone is a huge, useful skill,” she says. “None of us works alone anymore. It’s all about teamwork. Training and bringing up people below you is half the job. Every one of them will have to do that in their careers.”

Hames says working with LIFT taught him things he wouldn’t have learned in business classes. “Finance classes especially are very theoretical and definitely don’t lead to interaction with other people outside of class,” he says. “LIFT gave me a great opportunity to get out of my comfort zone and learn how to talk to people I may not have otherwise had the chance to meet. I think it will be an invaluable experience as I go into the real world and work with people from various backgrounds.”

Being an effective trainer requires watching for cues as to whether people understand, seeing what they need and adapting, McKinney says, and this takes practice.

“I think the biggest thing I learned from the whole thing was how to be a teacher,” Hames says. “You had to really evaluate your students’ knowledge level, then tailor your explanations so that everything was clear.”

LIFT will take place every fall, spring and summer. McKinney says program leaders are building partnerships with organizations such as the West Alabama Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Development Program that have similar goals.

They also are looking for corporate sponsorships as a way of creating a pipeline. Ideally, sponsors would provide information about skills their job applicants need, LIFT would offer training in those skills and then LIFT graduates would interview for jobs with the companies, McKinney says. “The ultimate success would be that they are actually hired,” she says.

McKinney says she also wants the initiative to be sustainable and student-led, with her serving as a facilitator so “students can really shine.”
“They can lead things and be in charge of things,” she says. “And they’re already stepping up.”

Program co-founder David Hose is a prime example. “We have been very fortunate to have the resources that we have used, but the driving force behind the project is the passion of The University of Alabama students and the Tuscaloosa community,” he says. “We have been able to make a big difference in many individuals’ lives with a bucket of laptops and a lot of time and effort.”

To learn more about LIFT, contact Lisa McKinney at 205-348-6679 or lmckinne@culverhouse.ua.edu.