As a director of strategic planning for Unisys Commercial Divisions, I often wondered how I could apply my skills in my community. As I looked for opportunities, I was fortunate enough to work at a leadership level with organizations such as Opportunities Industrialization Centers of America (OIC), Heart of the Earth Survival School and the Urban League. And although I received local and national recognition for my involvement, the real reward was discovering how many wonderful and talented people were doing valuable work for our society through nonprofit organizations. 

Although I had a corporate background (with Unisys, IBM and Johnson & Johnson), my work with nonprofits compelled me to broaden my experience by pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership from St. Thomas. The multidisciplined program allowed business, education, medical and nonprofit leaders to research issues of leadership in their respective fields. I chose to focus on leadership organizations such as the Governor’s Workforce Development Council (GWDC).  The GWDC creates strategies and policies on school-to-work, welfare-to-work and dislocated workers.  I was appointed by Governors Perpich, Carlson and Ventura, and served as chair during six of the 12 years I participated in the council. 

After receiving my degree, I set out to devise a project management curriculum for community leaders. It was imperative that the curriculum fit the mission of St. Thomas as an urban university. I spent time discussing service learning with Dr. Ellen Kennedy, and studied community structure with Sister Sharon Howell and Father Thaddeus Posey. I sought comments and critiques from my Management 301 teaching team – synthesizing their thoughtful reflections with my corporate and community experience. And with their help I crafted a project management course with a significant service-learning component.

Students from the project management course have put their skills to use at a number of area nonprofits. One example is OIC, a national organization that aims to transform hopelessness into hope through human resource development. OIC focuses on self-help and developing the individual as a whole while they work to become self-sufficient and productive employees.  OIC helps people prepare for today’s workforce by developing quality life skills and offering fundamental education, superior job skills training and employment readiness services.

East Metro OIC, located in St. Paul, is just one of the affiliates where St. Thomas students have made a difference. Students have recently analyzed the organization’s inventory, information and distribution processes using operations and project management skills.  They also have worked on a semesterlong project to analyze the workflow of activities, assess resources and construct a project plan. In addition, St. Thomas students have learned to master project management tools such as Microsoft Project, apply financial analysis to the operations cost structures, and assess leadership and worker capabilities.

Finally, students have had the unique opportunity to engage with OIC leadership through interim and final presentations. Final presentations, in particular, take the form of a consultancy in which students define the strengths of the organization, offer a thorough analysis of its health and viability, and make strong recommendations for improvement. 

Bill Means, the executive director of the state of Minnesota OIC, has expressed great satisfaction with the St. Thomas student performance. “This approach to teaching and learning is one of the most valuable tools I have seen in my education and work experience,” Means said. “The experience is practical and inspirational. The idea of students working with community-based organizations is similar to practice teaching for education majors, but also exposes the students to valuable work going on in the community and real issues of project management.”

St. Thomas has kept close ties with OIC during the last 10 years. I have conducted strategic planning seminars with American Indian, East Metro, Anishinabe and the state of Minnesota OIC affiliates. It is a commitment to service learning that I hope my students continue to foster well past their time at St. Thomas.

Ernest L. Owens Jr. has been a College of Business faculty member since 1993. Owens received the Dr. Leon Sullivan Award, given annually to outstanding community citizens who work to help underskilled and underemployed workers, and also was a 1990 recipient of the “Eleven Who Care” award.

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