Creating an Intentional Learning Environment for Student Setup Crews​

 At the core of learning opportunities for a student employee should be responsibility, creativity, and continual growth. As Winston Churchill once said, “The price of greatness is responsibility.” That is, to excel, one must own the task or situation; sometimes this will lead to greatness. Without affording an employee the opportunity to own their work and learning process, the potential for greatness is diminished.

This philosophy applies well to the experiences of student setup crews. The most successful students in this unique job opportunity are responsible, creative, and constantly growing. Their role is critical, dynamic, and high touch—working to make sure that events are smooth, efficient, and well-organized from an operations perspective. Student setup crews are the eyes and ears of the front line operation when it comes to building management. When provided with the proper resources and training, these students can make all the difference in the event planning and execution process. 

It is recommended that professional staff design and facilitate learning opportunities for student setup crews that focus on those tenents noted above. Here are 10 concepts to implement with student setup crews that will encourage career growth.

1. Collaboration in Practice for a Team Mindset
Just as no one person is completely independent or achieves success in a vacuum, student setup team members can benefit from collaboration. This could go beyond the traditional setting of working with other setup crew members to include collaborating with professional staff in roles that contribute to the event experience, such as catering, university police, media services, and physical plant. Jennifer Parissi-Forti, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, said this type of opportunity allows students to “gain knowledge of etiquette in both client and professional roles.” For example, shadowing rotations or one-day workshops with each of these departments could give students a better understanding of their role and impact, as well as expand their knowledge of the event planning and execution process. 

2. Integration Between Theory and Practice for Career Development
Partnerships with the academic side can provide a path for career development. Some examples include certain student roles being eligible for course credit, practicum experience, or internship validation. Another path could be to have those enrolled in project management, operations, or communication courses visit the union or event planning office to see their studied concepts in action. Student setup crew members could facilitate learning through activities or presentations, affording them a career-related practice as well. For example, while leading the building manager team at Northwestern University, Jackie Grinvalds worked with a student to develop case study examples to implement during training for newer building managers. 

3. Building Connection in Real Time
An important aspect of the student employee experience is the connections made and the community built. Whether it is meeting a professional staff member during training, a fellow student during a shift, or a corporate vice president during an event hosted in the union, these connections affect the student’s experience. It is equally important to actively encourage and facilitate these connections as it is to let them happen organically. This could be an informal destressing session or a speed networking event with setup crew members from other local institutions. 

4. Cultural Context for Empowerment
As current events continue to affect campus climates, it will continue to be an important practice to check in with students. Unions are a venue for expression and engagement, making it critical to be aware of what students are feeling and experiencing. When student employees know that the professional staff are invested in their overall well-being and are concerned about current events, a greater rapport can be built. For example, Alisha Lewis, University of Vermont, made the decision to display the Black Lives Matter flag. This prompted student staff to host an event to inspire and express solidarity with the movement. On a basic level, providing a safe space for student employees to connect and discuss issues of concern helps to empower them to be better leaders.

5. Leadership Lessons for Well-Rounded Learning
While some students working in event operations tend to have an interest in staying in the field, most will not pursue this path. It is important to expose student setup crews to experiences that will facilitate career growth outside the event and operations field. Professional staff supervisors have the unique opportunity to highlight how skills learned in their role can be transferrable to other positions. One way to do this is by emphasizing competencies of the job such as communication, accountability, problemsolving, and risk and resource management through situational training, team building activities, or collaborating on workshops with community partners or other institutions. One institution that is taking a lead on this approach is Northwestern University. According to Grinvalds, during building manager training, students are assigned to different areas within the university center (including arts, cashier services, and audio-visual) to gain an understanding of the expectations and daily experience of each one.

6. Team and Individual Accountability for Balanced Attribution
Accountability most often comes into play when considering who is responsible when something goes wrong. It is also important to notice who is responsible when it goes well and what series of events and teams can continue or improve actions as appropriate. Within setup crews, students often rely on each other. It is essential for students to allow one other to take accountability for their actions and choices while considering how their role affects the overall operation.

Allison Shilling, Clark University, said, “I have seen that motivation is more often generated from positive feedback and celebrating wins rather than only noticing the losses or acknowledging the areas of the job that need improvement. When tardiness seems to be an issue, I make sure to document the situation as needed but also make sure to recognize the students who are consistently on time. I see the concept of positive accountability playing out in peer-to-peer interactions as well. Students who are on setup crews together need to depend on each other on a daily basis to get the job done. Positive feedback helps build a dynamic team and hopefully a team atmosphere of succeeding together or failing together.” Additionally, Shilling recently launched a newsletter that includes staff profiles of building managers who have performed exceptionally and highlights the sense of community built from shared responsibility. 

7. Situational Training for Solutions-Based Thinking
As noted earlier, showing studentsthe transferrable skills developed through their work is helpful and necessary. Situational training is one way to afford that opportunity to students so they can make the connections early and often. Possible training situations that are applicable to these students include spending time with first responders to discuss how to handle emergencies or reviewing how to diffuse high-stress situations with clients. You can also demonstrate positive problem-solving behavior by encouraging students to speak up about issues and finding a solution together.

“I have found success in allowing students to submit training topics or scenarios that we walk through together,” said Ashley Austin, Tufts University. “In one instance, my students were having issues with the shuttle system. I listened to their issues, organized a meeting with the shuttle manager, and sent them the most common issues ahead of time so that the manager was prepared to have solutions or answers to issues. Anytime student staff can feel like their voices are being heard and their direct issues are being addressed, I’ve had successful team morale responses.”

8. Mentoring for a Growth-Based Environment
The value of mentoring continues to be explored and demonstrated. Student staff would likely benefit from having someone either formally or informally serve as their guide and reference for questions and advice—be it career, academic, or personal. This sort of relationship can help enforce accountability, community, and growth. Consider creating a system for seasoned student staff to serve as mentors or facilitating “matches” between student staff and professional staff. The University of Wisconsin–Madison, Edgewood College, and Madison College provide a cross-institutional Student Affairs Mentoring Program for undergraduates and graduate students that provides direct connections with current student affairs professionals for mentoring and support. 

9. Institutional Awareness and Context for Great Understanding 
Knowing the key players and overall organizational structure is critical to navigating a role and the scope of that role on a larger scale. This may be especially true on college campuses and in union settings. Professional staff should be transparent about institutional or departmental changes so that students know who and what they are representing in their daily experiences. Student setup crews also should have a list of main contacts across departments to help them understand the general layout of campus on an organic level.

10. Showcasing Value for Increased Impact and Understanding
In any situation where knowledge is shared or opportunities are offered, there is the chance that the appropriate lessons will not be understood and expected learning outcomes will not manifest. This possibility brings attention to the importance of creating time and space for student employees to be active in their professional development journeys. It is equally important to avoid assumptions about what student employees are learning and help them make connections. Professional staff can help facilitate this is through productive, interactive, consistent, and well-coordinated meetings that directly incorporate learning outcomes; seeking and providing feedback on the application of learning to regular tasks and responsibilities;and being intentional about connecting student setup crew members with those who held similar roles in the past to demonstrate the effectiveness and importance of the learning process on the job. 

Additionally, supervisors can encourage students to take advantage of resources in place at the institutionto further their development. For example, Indiana University–Bloomington provides a multi-dimensional platform to facilitate communication among the broader campus community, including alumni, current students, faculty, and staff. It focuses particularly on providing a space for current students to develop and enhance their professional development through articles, opportunities, events, and connections. Additional features includeself-evaluation, career path assessment, practice-based resources, and integration of campus involvement in the professional development profile. 

The impact that student employees have on campus life is remarkable. The benefits of student employment are reciprocal, allowing students to support their educational expenses while developing critical skills and allowing professional staff to provide unique opportunities while curating additional operational support. According to the University of California–San Diego, studies have demonstrated that “students who work on campus are more likely to persist in their studies.” Professional staff members can assist in helping students grow both professionally and personally by offering learning opportunities like those identified in this article that encourage collaboration, skill development, accountability, and more.