A pilot program led by Stanford University and the College of San Mateo aims to punch a hole in the paper ceiling, the invisible barrier that hinders many Americans without bachelor’s degrees from advancing in their careers or landing well-compensated jobs.
The Stanford Administrative Fellowship program, or StAF, placed an inaugural cohort of eight community college students into paid administrative internships at the university over fall quarter. Mentored by experienced staff members in seven different Stanford offices, the fellows learned a variety of professional skills, including how to update websites, plan events and use financial software.
The goal was to introduce the students to career paths in administrative support at a leading research university. A widespread but misplaced belief is that a four-year degree is required for such employment, said Mitchell Stevens, a professor of education at Stanford who helped conceive the program. Stevens is a faculty affiliate of the Stanford Accelerator for Learning.
“There’s a lot of talent in our region that we probably haven’t recognized because of the presumption that people need a four-year credential in order to be qualified,” he said.
The design and implementation of StAF was a collaboration between Stevens’ research group, Pathways Network; the College of San Mateo, where the fellows were enrolled as students; the Stanford Administrative Champions (password required); Stanford’s Office of Community Engagement; and Stanford Digital Education.
On Dec. 11, a celebration marking the completion of the StAF fellows’ internships was held at the College of San Mateo. “We are thrilled to have had students participate in this dynamic fellowship,” said Andrea Vizenor, executive director of strategic initiatives and economic development at the college, noting that the students underwent a competitive selection process for the internships.
Vizenor, who played a lead role in developing the program, addressed the six fellows in attendance: “Your dedication, critical thinking, time, professionalism and hard work are so very much appreciated and recognized. The confidence, powerful network and valuable work experience you have gained will provide exciting things to add to your resume as you finish college and pursue your dream job.”
A common refrain among the fellows was that the skills they learned in their internships are broadly transferable to many career paths. “During the internship, I did various tasks involving event planning, handling finances, building websites, organizing spreadsheets, creating surveys and answering emails,” said Cole Eckert, a Bay Area resident who is studying geology at the College of San Mateo. “I obtained so many versatile skills. It was 100% worth it.” And, like all the fellows, he was paid $30 an hour.
Eckert was also one of several fellows who were able to parlay their internships into part-time jobs at Stanford. He completed his internship in the dean’s office at the School of Humanities and Sciences. His mentor was Lynette Williams, a project analyst in the office who also co-leads the Stanford Administrative Champions, a group that supports administrative staff across the university. (One of the founders of the group, Jacquelyn Wang, was part of the team that developed the StAF program.)
“My goal was to give Cole a broad experience of the administrative role at Stanford by exposing him to as many learning opportunities as possible,” Williams said. “He was enthusiastic and eager to learn new skills. He’s highly thought of in the H&S dean’s office.”
Kennedy Materne, a native of Guam who’s studying English at the College of San Mateo, completed an internship in the Office of the Chief Risk Officer at Stanford. Materne, who is interested in a career as a professional writer, said she applied to the StAF program because she saw it as an avenue for developing new skills. “I wanted to challenge myself and see what else I could do,” she said.
She said the internship helped her hone her communication skills: She spoke at meetings with senior staff — an experience she said was intimidating at first — and helped to revise reports and create slideshow presentations. Among other things, she also led a project to update the office’s website, composed and sent out group emails and streamlined the management of a database.
“I learned so many skills working in the office environment, especially because the tasks would change from day to day,” said Materne, who was offered the opportunity to continue working in the Office of the Chief Risk Officer as a part-time employee. Her mentor was Mary Catherine Watten, executive program manager in the office.
Other fellows in the program were:
- Briana Johnsen (mentored by Cindy Berhtram, director of project strategy and operations at Stanford Digital Education);
- Vanessa Reyes (mentored by Jesse Rivas, faculty affairs administrator in the School of Education);
- Brittany Shive (mentored by Kim Marks, an executive assistant in Financial Management Services);
- Devin Matosian (mentored by Sonia Baca, an administrative team co-lead and executive assistant in University IT);
- Nataliia Boyko (mentored by Bobbi Woody-Mistriel, an executive assistant at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory); and
- Joshua Sina (mentored by Watten).
The StAF program is in line with a movement across the United States to make well-paying jobs available to working adults without a bachelor’s degree. For example, Tear the Paper Ceiling, a campaign by an organization called Opportunity@Work, declares that “‘qualified’ means qualities, not just degrees.”
What drives many of these efforts, including StAF, is a concern about the widening wage gap between adults with four-year degrees and those without them, as well as a demand for talent that can’t be met solely by the annual influx of traditional college graduates into the job market.
The program is both a way for Stanford to engage with the community and help the university alleviate the challenges it faces in recruiting and retaining staff, according to Stevens.
“We’re in a very competitive labor market in the Bay Area,” he said. “Even though we’re an affluent institution, we don’t have the resources that the big tech firms have. We’ll never offer stock options! But as a university, we have assets that could make us a distinctive employer — an opportunity employer. We could welcome ambitious people to have their careers at Stanford regardless of their age or educational credentials. We could offer learning opportunities and mobility pathways to all of our employees. It would almost surely help us with recruitment and retention. And we’d be a better neighbor too.”
Stevens said he and his team would like to expand the program to other community colleges and workforce-development agencies in the area. Supported with seed funds from the Office of Community Engagement and Stanford Impact Labs, he has assembled an advisory group that includes leadership from a variety of partners, including NOVAworks, JobTrain, the San Mateo County Economic Development Association and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group. An internal advisory group that includes leads from multiple Stanford units is helping to develop a larger vision for expanding opportunity employment across the university.
With a part-time job in the H&S dean’s office waiting for him, Eckert said he is keen to continue developing his administrative skills with the help of Williams and her colleagues. He mentioned that one key lesson he learned during the internship was how to stick up for himself when he was confused about a task or needed support.
“There is more about every opportunity than we might expect,” he said. “So why not go for it?”
This story was originally published by Stanford Digital Education.