Editor's Note: Dr. Larry Thompson is the president of Ringling College of Art and Design.
As this decade began, Ringling College was faced with a perplexing challenge. With the cost of higher education, especially an art and design education, under intense scrutiny, we needed to take action to demonstrate conclusively that an arts education today is relevant, affordable and one of the best paths to long-term career success and satisfaction.
Because of our institution’s reputation for academic excellence, the recognition Ringling College graduates’ receive, the profound achievements our graduates have made in their professions and the extensive corporate, alumni and recruiter network the College has, we felt that Ringling College was uniquely positioned to transform the higher education-career paradigm of higher education, especially in the arts.
The question: What can we do while the students are still in college to maximize our students’ career opportunities, their success after graduation and their career satisfaction?
When researching the above question, we discovered a 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index study of more than 30,000 college graduates. That study found that students who had experiential learning opportunities more than doubled their odds of being engaged and successful at work and were more likely to be thriving in all areas of well-being than graduates who did not have such experiences.
Creating the Collaboratory
Armed with this research, we decided to create what we call “The Collaboratory” within the College with the idea to provide creative, experiential learning opportunities to EVERY student attending Ringling College of Art and Design.
We discussed this idea with The Patterson Foundation and they became our partner with the goal of transforming the higher education experience so that students from different majors can work together as an interdisciplinary team on professional project opportunities while they are students - working and learning on real-world, real-time projects with resume-building clients during their sophomore, junior, and senior years.
Transforming the Higher Education Experience
So, what is so transformational about this collaboratory idea? Two answers:
1). At first blush, it seems that the Collaboratory is just a different word for an internship. But, it is not. Instead, it is a re-thinking of the traditional internship construct. Instead of students leaving campus and going to work in a business or organization, the business or organization comes to the campus through the Collaboratory to initiate the project and then work closely with the students as the project progresses virtually. It is this consultative process - and the value and regard Collaboratory clients place upon accessing our students’ skills and creativity - that differentiates the Collaboratory experience for Ringling students.
2). But, don’t most colleges have opportunities for students that are similar to the Collaboratory idea? Not really. The reason is that most colleges only have opportunities for a small group of students. For example, some colleges have centers where a student may be able to apply to work on a professional project. The problem is that only the best students are chosen in this competitive environment. The other situation is where a faculty member knows someone in business and that faculty member might bring a project into his/her class. That is wonderful, but the problem is that only those students in that specific class get an opportunity to participate in the project.
The transformational idea behind the Collaboratory is to ensure that ALL students are given the opportunity to have these real-world experiences with real-world clients, not just those who are exceptional or who happen to enroll in a certain class.
Workforce Ready Students
The benefits to students are many. First, they get experience working with real clients and executive teams and work with colleagues from other disciplines, just like in the real world. Second, the students get valuable portfolio and additions to their resume along with letters of recommendations from top-tier clients who can attest to their professional and “soft” skills like team-work, collaboration, client-service orientation, time management, etc. Many students working through the Collaboratory also get opportunities for paid engagements to implement their ideas as well as create networking opportunities, more often than not leading to interviews and job offers upon graduation.
The Collaboratory results in another great benefit for Ringling College graduates. It helps solve the “dilemma of the recent college graduate.” That dilemma (actually more of a Catch-22) is: “As a recent college graduate I cannot get a job because I do not have experience; but, I cannot get experience because I don’t have a job.” The Collaboratory provides the benefits mentioned above, including the references and experience on the resume necessary to show potential employers that the student is not only educated but also knows how to work professionally.
The level of interaction in the Collaboratory is also important to delineate here. Collaboratory engagements are not ‘get the coffee’ internships – they are opportunities for students to be listened to and interact with the leaders of various companies ranging from fledgling startups to governmental entities, from non-profits to Fortune 100 organizations.
These are organizations that are working with Ringling students because they want access to our student’s creative thinking and problem-solving. They are looking for their next big ideas and they find it from our students at Ringling College.
The Ringling College Collaboratory Commitment
Based on the early successes with Collaboratory student/faculty/client engagements, Ringling College and The Patterson Foundation decided to fast-track further development of this concept and institute the ‘Ringling College Collaboratory Commitment.’ Under that commitment, the College guarantees that every freshman who enrolls -- beginning with the fall of 2015 -- will be provided the opportunity to participate in a professional work experience with real clients, real deliverables and deadlines before graduation.
Many companies come to the Collaboratory to work with our talented and creative students so they can help shape their future identities and the focus of their future global branding. Because this work is so vital and essential to the future of their businesses, students and faculty are required to work regularly under non-disclosure agreements to protect their ideas. Current Collaboratory projects under such non-disclosure agreements include a Memory Capturing Project, a Character Development Project and an Interior Design and Creation Project.
Student/faculty Collaboratory projects in process with clients that can be shared publicly include PNC Bank, American Zoetrope, Dylan McDermott, Justin Long, Nashville Next, Porter Winery, Scene Magazine, Sarasota Police Department, Southeastern Guide Dogs, Sarasota Film Festival, I Will Mentor, Hackathon Weekend and L’Ambiance.
A recently completed Collaboratory engagement with General Motors project has resulted with GM offering all Ringling College seniors involved with the project the opportunity to interview for design positions. Those who were not seniors are being granted the opportunity to interview with the company upon graduation. As a further validation of the value collaboration brings to both student and participating organizations, GM has contracted with Ringling College to engage on an even more advanced form of their initial project again this year.
The collaboration with GM is a great example of how art and design, when married with technology and engineering, can significantly impact and improve a company’s approach to new and innovative business practices. Ringling College students love their collaboratory experiences and are thrilled to have this kind of transformative educational opportunity.
The Patterson Foundation president and CEO Debra Jacobs reinforced the impact the Collaboratory is having, commenting that “this engagement with GM is yet another example of the new realities that can emerge when imaginative philanthropy converges with the creative potential in art and design higher education. We are proud to support this transformation of the art and design curriculum as Ringling College prepares the next generation of our workforce.”
Collaboratory engagements also open the eyes of art and design students that their skills are needed in a variety of industries. So, instead of just thinking of a career in a design firm or an advertising company or studio, they learn that manufacturers, service industries, non-profits, governments, etc. need artists and designers and their creative thinking like never before. This, in turn, causes the students to broaden their search for career opportunities upon graduation. Indeed, this experience is helping our graduates be at the forefront of entirely new and unique job descriptions at organizations seeking creative competitive advantage.
The Collaboratory develops these transformative experiential opportunities through building long-term trusted relationships with clients based upon successful outcomes. As the reputation of the creative thinking our students and faculty advisors provide to clients in these engagements grows, more and more organizations are approaching Ringling College for customer-focused, design-based solutions to their business challenges.
A New Process
When an engagement is undertaken, the Collaboratory identifies faculty leaders and strong alumni to supervise each project and then recruits a multi-disciplinary team of students that seems to correspond with the project’s needs. In addition to Collaboratory projects such as charrettes and long-term class projects, students also gain professional experience working with Ringling College’s Design Center, ARTNetwork and the Studio Laboratory, as well as engagements secured through the Center for Career Services and other administrative departments.
Our focus on providing the highest level of discipline-specific education plus the breadth of conceptual thinking founded in the arts and liberal arts are what create the best computer animators; filmmakers; game, graphic, motion, and interior designers; and fine artists to name a few specializations. With the addition of the Collaboratory, the students also get the real work experience they need to begin a great career and succeed. That combination is resulting in many of our graduates being hired before graduation by top studios and agencies.
Based upon responses from a survey of graduates, over 80 percent of our students land a job in their chosen field within 6 months of graduation; and more than 90 percent report the same within 9 months.
Ringling College of Art and Design is meeting the challenge of making an arts education not only economically feasible, but economically desirable. Through our partnership with The Patterson Foundation and the work of our Collaboratory, we are providing students with the client-based, customer-focused work experience in multi-disciplinary, experiential learning settings with guidance from faculty and alumni facilitators that maximize their chances for success upon graduation. We have done all of this while continuing to increase the quality and value of a Ringling College education—generating a return on educational investment for our students greater than ever before.
Learn about these and other concepts used in TPF's approach to philanthropy.
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