Old Cabell Lawn on Summer Day

A&S Magazine September-October 2020

Gearing Up for the Working World

How UVA Launchpad Saved Students’ Summer

By: Lorenzo Perez

Gearing Up for the Working World

With the COVID-19 pandemic triggering mass cancellations of education abroad programs, internships and volunteer jobs, the College of Arts & Sciences had little time this spring to figure out how to rescue what could have been a lost summer of opportunity for students. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the College collaborated with UVA’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS) to design and launch — in a matter of weeks — a new eight-week online program in the University’s Summer Session that combined liberal arts courses with technical workshops and career-focused projects to help propel students toward a spectrum of career possibilities.

Appropriately called UVA Launchpad, its debut session this summer drew more than 100 students, primarily from the College of Arts & Sciences. The positive feedback from students who completed the program with six course credits from the College, as well as “bootcamp” experience in digital marketing, data analytics, podcast production and other marketable skills, has the College and SCPS working on continuing the program in the future.

“This has been an invaluable experience for me,” said Elli Perkins, a fourth-year anthropology major from Richmond. The career search and networking lessons woven into Launchpad helped her see how to apply the ethnography skills she’s learned in her major to a consulting career. “It couldn’t have been more timely for me, going into my last year. I felt like I didn’t have much time to figure out what I want to do after college, but this has given me the opportunity to really step back and start some concrete plans. … It’s been incredible.”

All hands on deck to create a unique student experience

SCPS instructional designer Kevin Lucey called it “a whirlwind” that began at the end of March when Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom and SCPS Dean Alex Hernandez proposed working together to quickly develop a new summer program in response to the pandemic. 

“They were really worried about all the students who had summer internships and work experiences, any number of educational opportunities just completely derailed or pushed aside in the blink of an eye,” Lucey said. “So we were scrambling, thinking, ‘What can we do for them? How can we create something that would benefit the students or at least take the place of some of these opportunities they no longer have?”

The deans quickly brought together the many people needed to build the program — faculty, grad students, UVA’s financial aid and registrar’s offices, and others. One generous College alumna donated $250,000 to make sure students who qualified for financial assistance could cover the cost.  

“It was clear we had to do something for our students, and the entire University pulled together to create a truly innovative program in a matter of days,” SCPS Dean Alex Hernandez said. “I am thrilled for our students and inspired by my colleagues.”

Building resumes through hands-on experience

UVA Launchpad students could select from 14 different classes and bootcamps taught by faculty from the School of Data Science and SCPS, as well as Ph.D. students from the College. Students in the “Art and Science of Persuasive Statistics” classes taught by Katie Daniel and Alexandra Silverman, Ph.D. students in the College’s Department of Psychology, learned how to identify the difference between sound and unsound statistical arguments and identified variables to design research studies of their personal cell phone usage. In the “Ethical Hacking for Public Good” bootcamp taught by SCPS faculty member Angela Orebaugh, an expert in cyber security and information technology, students learned to crack passwords and analyze network traffic.

The  program also required the completion of group projects offering students hands-on experience working with outside companies and nonprofits through opportunities provided by alumni and friends of the College. Students in the “Introduction to Brand Identity and Storytelling” bootcamp taught by Gahl Pardes, an MFA candidate in the Department of English’s Creative Writing Program who worked previously in the tech industry, met virtually with companies and nonprofits to develop marketing campaign pitches. They made brand identify presentations to companies ranging from MyHeritage, an international online genealogy platform, to JBird Supply, a specialty coffee startup in Charlottesville. Other students designed brand identity pitches for nonprofits such as Charlottesville’s Sexual Assault Resource Agency and the Climate Collaborative.

Orebaugh’s students, meanwhile, worked on projects for a variety of local and larger companies and nonprofits, including an international law firm; Axiologic Solutions, a systems engineering and information technology consulting firm based in Fairfax, Virginia; a local nonprofit, Smart Cville; and TomorrowToday, Orebaugh’s cybersecurity and sustainability consulting company.

Launchpad program manager Yash Tekriwal worked with the experience mentors to help students understand how to apply the skills they learned as students to a variety of technical and non-technical fields.

“The potential of this program is immense,” said Tekriwal, a graduate of UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce. “A program like Launchpad can help a university make the really strong case that ‘we are accelerating graduates and the work that they can do in whatever career.’”

UVA Launchpad students share how the new virtual education program helped them define career goals and earn valuable experience this summer.

Opening career paths

Zaki Lewis, an East Asian Studies major from Stuart, Florida, joked that he didn’t know that Google Analytics existed before taking a Launchpad bootcamp titled “The Art and Science of Digital Communications: Online Marketing and Impact Storytelling.” Taught by Matthew Weber, senior assistant to UVA President Jim Ryan, the bootcamp featured online guest lectures from leading marketing professionals like David Chen, a marketing executive for Amazon Prime Video and an acclaimed podcaster. Hearing Chen talk about the importance of finding something you love that you can be first, different or best at inspired Lewis to refine his plans to launch his own fashion line of street wear. He said he is also applying the lessons learned in Weber’s bootcamp to help his mother market a line of haircare products that she is creating.

“It’s been a huge learning experience for both us, really, learning about digital marketing and e-commerce and how to use Google Analytics,” Lewis said about Launchpad. “I can’t think of a more important life experience that I’ve had, in such a short amount of time.”

For Lindsay Neff, who had her education abroad trip to Valencia, Spain canceled due to the pandemic, Launchpad allowed her to change course quickly this summer. In addition to taking a class on emotional intelligence that Neff said helped her build self-awareness and to manage potential areas of stress and conflict that may arise, the third year from Ashburn, Virginia also completed two rigorous bootcamp sessions on Python, a programming language used for data analytics.

“The main draw for me was the combination of short courses on interesting topics and technical skill development. I think it's awesome that the College created a program that allowed us to get both academic credit and some professional experience. That they brought it online so quickly is really impressive to me, … I'm just pretty grateful that they were able to do that.”

Another third-year College student, John West, had his summer internship with a fundraising lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. canceled due to the pandemic. The government major had hoped to go to Milwaukee for the national Democratic Convention as part of the internship. With those plans jettisoned, the government major said Launchpad’s “Emotional Intelligence” and “The Art and Science of Persuasive Statistics,” courses, as well as a bootcamp on data analytics and spreadsheets, helped save the summer.

“Launchpad was so much more than online classes. It was a lot more career focused and felt like an actual replacement to the internship I lost,” the Falls Church, Virginia native said. “When I was back home talking with friends from different colleges, it seemed like a lot of other schools just said, ‘well, the semester’s canceled, figure it out. We’ll get back to you whenever this is all over.

“I felt like UVA was not just creating Launchpad to give students something to do. It was more than that, because it actually was giving students a way to further their career paths, and that’s pretty big.”

 Invest in People and the Power of Knowledge

Strengthen Arts & Sciences today in support of UVA’s Honor the Future Campaign