UC students help community partners with business solutions

Capstone writing course emphasizes professional development

Three teams of English majors from the University of Cincinnati's College of Arts and Sciences assembled on a late Wednesday afternoon in April for a Zoom presentation. For their clients, they had prepared strategic business guidelines on topics from social media to grant writing and funding proposals to digital volunteer manuals.

“Deliverables” in the business sense aren’t usually associated with liberal arts studies. But for students in this Professional Writing Capstone Class, offered through the department of English, it has become a familiar term.

Using skills such as strategic analysis, web design, project management and research, the student teams prepared their deliverables for Cincinnati-area clients such as the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati, The American Cancer Society Discovery Store and more.

A&S professor of English and Professional Writing instructor Kathy Rentz

A&S professor of English and professional writing instructor Kathy Rentz

These types of liberal arts skills are critical to the workplace, says English professor Kathy Rentz, who with associate professor Laura Wilson has taught the senior capstone professional writing course since 2019.

“We don’t see any gap between those skills and the needs of the professional writing field—judgement based on analysis, analytical and critical thinking, creative and interpretive skills,” Rentz says. “It couldn’t be a more beautiful marriage as far as we’re concerned.”

Wilson agrees: “We teach the writing that people will hire you for, and pay you to do,” she says. “A lot of students who take this course have an ‘aha’ moment—this is what I can do with an English degree!”

Professional development is integral to the course, and helps prepare students to integrate into the workplace after graduation. These types of hands-on, real-world experiences support UC’s Bearcat Promise—part of the university’s strategic direction Next Lives Here —which is designed to help ensure that students graduate with a degree and a career plan.

“We teach the writing that people will hire you for, and pay you to do.”

Laura Wilson, UC Associate Professor

A&S associate professor and professsional writing instructor Laura Wilson

A&S associate professor and professsional writing instructor Laura Wilson

The benefits of these partnerships work both ways. Each year, Professional Writing Capstone students partner with area non-profits and small businesses to analyze and fill needs for organizations that are typically underfunded and understaffed. A 12-member advisory board of industry professionals consults with the university team to identify community partners and connect them with the course and its resources.

This year’s community partners also included the Freestore Foodbank’s Healthy Harvest Mobile Market, Childhood Food Solutions, Caza Sikes (a family-run gallery and art appraisal house in Oakley), and Q-Kidz Dance Team (which supports the youths of Cincinnati’s West End through the art of dance).

To prepare their deliverables for the Literacy Network of Greater Cincinnati (LNGC), students Curtis Davis, Ally Georgiton, Amy Waugh and team leader Kamellia Smith created an interactive onboarding manual for LNGC volunteers.

The non-profit LNGC works with a coalition of 100 agencies and more than 40 schools to help serve the needs of greater Cincinnati, where some 15-20 percent of the population struggles with basic reading, according to the organization’s website.

A&S student Kamellia Smith, an MA candidate in the Professional Writing program.

A&S student Kamellia Smith, an MA candidate in the Professional Writing program.

To start, the team created an inventory of LNGC materials, surveyed existing volunteers to understand their motivations, and then concepted the product for the organization. They also conducted a SWOT analysis of LNGC, evaluating its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, created a proposal for their client, and prepared the pitch.

“I basically communicated with (our client) by asking questions, making sure we had what we needed and that we understood her expectations,” says Smith. The team’s document inventory formed the foundation of the manual. Sorting, organizing and processing the information was one of the most challenging aspects of the assignment.

But the challenges led to rewards. “The Capstone project was the first time I worked directly with a client, and had a chance to use the knowledge I learned from the professional writing program in a professional setting,” Smith says. “I learned how to lead and work effectively with a team, organize a wide variety of materials, and produce a user-friendly document.”

Client Annie Schneider, LNGC director of external relations, was “thrilled” with the students’ presentation and deliverable. “For a professional staff of four, this is huge for us,” she said after the presentation, adding to the student group: “You should be proud. I can’t wait to share this with the rest of our team, because I know we’re going to able to use it in a number of ways.”

Featured image at top: Remote presentation via laptop. Photo/Chris Montgomery/Unsplash