(Photo: Jesse Scheve, Missouri State University)

Assistantships give grad students a full, two-year hands-on earn-and-learn opportunity

'This is the only opportunity that differentiates me from other students. I'm building valuable and professional connections.'

Experience, exposure, and connections are all benefits of an undergraduate internship. They can help undergraduate college students get a head start in their desired career fields. Missouri State University has launched a new “internship on steroids” program specifically for graduate students to deepen all of the benefits an earn-and-learn training program can offer to a whole different group of learners.

“In your typical internship, about the time that students find where the bathroom is, it’s over,” says Julie Masterson, Ph.D., associate provost and dean of Missouri State’s Graduate College.

“In this case, not only does the employer have a chance to learn about the student, the student has a chance to reflect on their experiences. The employer has the time, energy, and attention to really engage with some serious mentoring,”

While most internships can last about 10 weeks, or the duration of a semester, the new Community Graduate Assistantships provides the opportunity for local companies to hire Missouri State graduate students for up to two years.

A Tailored Approach to Workplace Learning

The earn-and-learn opportunity is more tailored than most internships, paid or unpaid. The company and the school work together to develop a job description that directly aligns with a student’s learning goals and the company’s desired outcomes.

Bass Pro Shops was one of the first companies to partner with the university. Its graduate assistant (GA) developed and implemented a project to get customer feedback on popular products. Another of the program’s biggest advocates, according to Masterson, is a small, four-person architectural firm that needed digital marketing and social media help.

“Before they were willing to invest a lot of money in creating a new position, they wanted to test the waters. They hired a GA to come in and before long she’s teaching them about all these things,” Masterson says.

“She’s having to learn architecture words and they’re both learning a whole other vocabulary. But I think this is a really, really important component. This is applicable all the way from a very small firm to a large conglomerate.”

‘Learning everything that we’re throwing at her’
Kelly Robertson, director of information technology, CNH Reman

Springfield-based CNH Reman hired computer science graduate student Asra Kulsum from the MSU assistantship program.

Kulsum is working as an implementation coordinator for the remanufactured parts company. Just as the job title signals, she helps assist in the implementation of projects and information systems.

The company’s director of information technology, Kelly Robertson, says she spent a lot of time on the job title and building the foundation for the role.

“I want to make sure that we are taking [her education] to the next step, giving her some experience, such as an understanding of the business acumen. We go over our financials every week at this organization. We go through the income statement and what impacts what, and how that flows.”

Robertson adds, “Anytime Julie [Masterson] asks us to speak, we jump and speak. Asra mentioned she’s done a lot of speaking. She was a part of our summer internship program, so she had to also present there.

“She’s working with our senior developer and has that mentorship there, as well. A lot of team interaction. We do a lot of collaborations. So, she’s getting a lot of interaction that she’ll be able to use.

“It’s not that Asra was lacking confidence when she came, but our hope is that she has even more confidence when she leaves by learning everything that we’re throwing at her.”

Kulsum studied computer science as an undergraduate in India and has some work experience. But through her graduate program and the assistantship, she says she is receiving mentorship and learning about technologies that her fellow classmates haven’t experienced.

Asra Kulsum, graduate student, Missouri State University
Asra Kulsum, graduate student, Missouri State University

“This is the only opportunity that differentiates me from other students. And to me personally, it has a lot of advantages because every day I get to learn something new and I’m building valuable and professional connections,” Kulsum says.

“They involve me in all sorts of meetings and internship activities, giving me the complete exposure and tons of benefits. And I also get a chance to speak up in public, especially about being a graduate assistant.

“If I had this opportunity back in college, I probably wouldn’t have gained as much as knowledge and real- world exposure as I’m gaining here.”

As part of her assistantship, Kulsum participates in job candidate interviews. She interacts regularly with stakeholders across and up within the hierarchy of the organization, developing business communication skills and learning the differences between speaking with a manager as opposed to a director or a general manager.

“Success for me is knowing that we have trained Asra as we would anyone else within our department. And seeing her being able to complete tasks and tickets on her own without guidance, having that foundational understanding and progressing with the projects that she’s working on. We’ve already seen what I would consider success,” Robertson says.

Aiming to Expand the Graduate Assistantship Program
Julie Masterson, Ph.D., associate provost and dean of Missouri State University’s Graduate College

The “community” part of the graduate assistantship program is intentional, Masterson says. It’s critical and acknowledges the partnership with the school and the student. She wants the school to develop the reputation for being the go-to institution for advanced workforce development.

“Part of our success would be when our community, our region, and the companies in our region felt like MSU was a really important partner with them. That we were sensitive to what they needed, that we were providing not only things like this program, but other kinds of just-in-time training or additional education opportunities for employers. We want the region, the community, to view us as a valuable asset,” she says.

Corporate partners sign contracts to offer a graduate assistantship and pay the graduate college. In turn the university pays the graduate assistant’s tuition, fees, and salary. It’s a way the program can be held accountable that the assistantship is directly tied to the academic experience. It also enables students like Kulsum, who is an F1 visa holder, to be eligible for these opportunities.

Kulsum is on track to graduate with her master’s degree in December and would like to stay in the U.S. for work. CNH Reman doesn’t sponsor visas, so she won’t be able to remain at the company when her assistantship is complete. But that is not stopping Robertson from being a fierce mentor and advocate for Kulsum.

“She will get the best glowing recommendation from myself and Jack, her primary mentor,” Robertson says. “I can tell you I’m already networking in our area to say, ‘I’ve got a really good one. She’s going to be a rockstar. She already is.’ And I’m already trying to lay that foundation to try and keep her in the area.”

Currently five companies offer community graduate assistantships and Masterson says she would like to see that number increase to double digits before the end of the year. Her goal is to have at least 10% of total graduate assistantships funded through this program, and a wide distribution of these opportunities across all the graduate programs.

“I don’t think enough people understand,” Robertson says of the program’s possibilities. “The sky is the limit.”