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USF St. Petersburg launches first of its kind Innovation Scholars Program

Megan Holmes



Photo Credit: USF St. Petersburg (courtesy of the USF St. Petersburg Facebook page).

What if a major piece of what sets a successful college experience apart from any other isn’t what’s taught in the four walls of a classroom, but the experiences a university leverages outside of its own campus, into the community?

That connection – between the university and the community – is part of Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock’s transformative vision for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Last week, USF St. Petersburg, in partnership with the St. Pete Innovation District, launched a unique program to connect local business leaders with incoming first-year students in their fall semester. Thirty high-achieving students (admitted with a high school GPA of 3.8 or higher) and 30 business leaders throughout St. Petersburg were matched through the Innovation Scholars Career Exploration Program for one-on-one job shadowing and mentorship opportunities in each students’ identified field of interest.

“Getting into the community is one of the best ways for students to refine their career goals and turn their dreams into reality,” said Tadlock. “Career shadowing allows students to test career and major choices by connecting their academic experience to the world outside of the classroom.”

The Innovation Scholars program is a first of its kind opportunity for the university’s students to enter into the discernment process from the very beginning of their time at USF. Students and mentors are required to meet at least three times throughout the semester for two hours (an easily attainable benchmark for students in the throes of adjusting to the lifestyle and rigor of the first year of college), but they are encouraged to meet as often as they like.

The program encourages students to discern their likes and dislikes in the workplace, providing the opportunity for the mentorship relationship to continue through spring semester, or for students to connect with a new mentor. Ideally, these relationships could develop into long term mentoring, internships, and eventually employment after the student graduates.

“We don’t know of any other program matching incoming freshman with business leaders,” said Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Pete Innovation District. “We looked for other organizations and partnerships doing this in other communities and couldn’t find any.”

“Dr. Tadlock was exploring ideas for how to provide an additional benefit to high performing students coming into the university,” Barlow said of the program’s origins. “He brought the idea to the Innovation District board and council and they were all for it. We instantly wanted to be part of it.”

The Innovation District’s role has been to recruit businesses and mentors to participate, and the response has been overwhelming. Many of St. Petersburg’s best known businesses are involved, most located in the Innovation District or the surrounding downtown areas. They represent a variety of sectors including marine science, financial services, arts, engineering, law, nonprofits, healthcare and others.

“We were looking for a cross section of businesses that represented the diversity of our community,” said Barlow. “Healthcare, sports, public relations, marketing, arts, a little bit of everything. We looked for businesses where someone at the senior level could be involved in some way. In some cases, they’re the mentor themselves. We wanted students to learn from a senior leader.”

“This program helps them learn about career opportunities that are adjacent to their interests, opportunities they maybe didn’t even know existed – in a variety of settings,” said Barlow. One student, interested in marketing with a background in arts was placed with the marketing department of an arts organization. Another student with similar interests was placed in a creative marketing firm. “We wanted them to have exposure to the fact that marketing happens in a variety of places,” Barlow explained.

“Nowadays with students, there’s so much pressure to be in and out in four years with your degree,” Barlow said. “There’s not as much time to change your mind. Students really need to vet the options early.”

The students’ experiences each provide a truly unique look into the local business community. One student is placed with the Tampa Bay Rays’ strategy team, two students are placed with Bayfront Health, one in healthcare administration and another with the head of nursing. Students interested in marine science found placement with NOAA Fisheries in the Innovation District, or shadowing more hands-on roles at Tampa Bay Watch. For students who were unsure of their career interests, Barlow said the priority was finding them mentors with broad backgrounds who were willing to play connector to organizations and other leaders throughout the city.

For more information about the Innovation Scholars Career Exploration Program, or apply to be a mentor for an upcoming semester,  click here. 



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