KALAMAZOO, Mich.—A unique program that highlights Western Michigan University student experiences is garnering acclaim. WMU Signature received the Innovative Program award at the NASPA Region IV-East annual conference.
"WMU Signature is a way that we validate what students have been doing outside the classroom," says Dr. Evan Heiser, the program's director. "They're getting engaged, they're exploring their passions, and the really different thing is students have to do something unique to put their passion into action."
Students who complete WMU Signature receive a co-curricular designation on their diplomas signifying one of nine pathways they can choose to focus on: civic engagement, diversity and inclusion, entrepreneurship, global engagement, health and wellness, leadership, social justice, sustainability, or teaching and student success. WMU is the only university in the nation offering the high-level student engagement endorsement.
"The idea is to help students stand out when they're applying for jobs or graduate school," Heiser says. "Getting engaged on campus helps to make students more successful. Helping students focus and find something they're passionate about will help them be more successful."
WMU Signature is comprised of three phases. In the first, students explore their passions by participating in 12 experiences outside of class. Approved events and activities are listed in the ExperienceWMU student engagement portal and range from speakers and workshops to study abroad and on-campus student employment.
"Anything where learning's taking place, we try to count it," says Heiser. "Things like on-campus employment where you learn a tremendous amount, that's a Signature credit. Being an active, engaged member of an RSO gets a Signature credit."
In the second phase, students declare a pathway and participate in six experiences specifically focused on that area. Once that is complete, students complete a PEAK—Providing Evidence of Active Knowledge—project. The idea is to put the passion the student has identified into action.
"We want to make sure they can articulate how these things are part of their Western experience—how they really do relate to their passion—and make sure it's at a level that they can talk about it at a graduate school or job interview," Heiser says. "Leadership, communication skills, all of those things that employers keep saying they want students to do, these projects highlight."
Twenty-six students completed PEAK projects in fall 2019. They will share their experiences during the PEAK Fair on Friday, Nov. 15, at 3 p.m. in Sangren Hall. A few students have offered a preview of their projects below.
Tori Stevens doesn't just march to the beat of her own drum—she has several others falling in step with the beat. Working her way up the ranks to drum major in the Bronco Marching Band, she knows what it takes to be a leader.
"I've realized there are a lot of applicable lessons through an organization like the Bronco Marching Band that people should know about and look into for their own organizations and leadership projects."
Her PEAK project is about creating culture in an organization.
"It's about empowering people to do their best and have ownership of something, because if you have ownership in something, you're going to be excited about it and you're going to want to do it," says Stevens, a music therapy major from Hillsdale.
The experiences she completed in the leadership pathway also laid a solid foundation for her future career.
"My dream job is to work in a hospital on an interdisciplinary team. Working with speech pathologists and child life specialists and doctors," Stevens says. "Being able to act as a leader in a team like that to provide the best service that we can is crucial."
The PEAK project, Stevens says, will help her better communicate her qualifications during an interview.
"We do all these extracurriculars in college and attend these events, but it's difficult to show that on paper. But with Signature you're learning to put that into words. It's kind of your elevator pitch of how this experience has given you the tools to succeed outside of academia."
Empowerment through Entrepreneurship
Creating economic stability and empowerment in local communities might seem like a lofty goal, but Justin Black is already taking steps to make it happen. The Seita Scholar from Detroit is about to launch WMU's first multi-country African study abroad program, which will take students to Rwanda and Uganda.
"With this program we'll be covering a variety of different topics including economic empowerment, women empowerment and learning to heal racial and ethnic conflicts," says Black, who is majoring in public relations and African studies. "I want to create leaders that will have the skills, knowledge and understanding of how to solve those problems."
It's not difficult to see the passion Black has in his PEAK project. Since starting the ball rolling in the spring, he's watched his endeavor develop into a class that will enroll students in fall 2020: Global Challenges for a Global Society.
"I put so much time and effort into this program that I thought it would be perfect in general for my PEAK project. The difficult part was making this entrepreneurial," says Black, who is focusing the program on the entrepreneurial mindset of assessing a problem and creating a solution.
Black knows this project, with the help of Signature, will be a launching point for career opportunities after he graduates this summer.
"It challenges you to have an idea of what you want to do and the impact that it will have. You need to be able to articulate what you want to do with your life, how it will translate into a career and how it will have the impact you intended it to have."
Signature has also provided Black with networking opportunities.
"It's helped me to interact with other students who are embarked on the same journey that I am," Black says. "Seeing young people creating initiatives and programs that are just as inspiring, just as impactful gave me motivation."
Breaking Down Cultural Barriers
Learning computer science is difficult when you're deciphering it in your native language. But Tiba Zika Abdulhameed, who is from Iraq, had to do it while learning English as well. The doctoral student started with CELCIS classes when she first came to WMU in 2013. An instructor herself in her home country, she noticed many cultural differences right away.
"I found that the teaching techniques that they're using are so interesting," she says. "I was comparing the techniques with what I was doing back in Iraq, and I decided I shouldn't only be getting my Ph.D., I should also be getting teaching experience because it's very different and so exciting."
Abdulhameed began immersing herself in all of the faculty development workshops she could and exploring technology to get more experience with active learning techniques. Her passion for learning helped when she became a part-time instructor at the University and also fit well with Signature's teaching and student success pathway.
"The experience of teaching was really, really exciting. The class that I taught was the same as I taught back in Iraq, but the culture was very different," says Abdulhameed, who found challenges with cultural and language barriers in the classroom.
She found a way to break down the cultural barriers using active teaching techniques she picked up in the various workshops she attended.
"If you make the student the center of the teaching, the process will be very successful," Abdulhameed says.
By leading students to find information instead of just lecturing and allowing students to share their own classroom challenges and struggles with classmates to collectively find solutions, Abdulhameed found that students learned more and were able to look past the cultural differences. Her experience with Signature will help her translate the classroom skills she's learned when she returns to Iraq.
"This was the goal. When I was attending Signature experiences, I was thinking of how to get these techniques and this experience back with me in Iraq for the students there."
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