WCSU/WOS project opens new career opportunities for veterans
Partnership with Prudential prepares vets for success in corporate workplace

DANBURY, CONN. U.S. Air Force Reserve veteran Alisha Stevens discovered the invitation to start a new career on Craigslist, while Air National Guard veteran Mitchell Smith’s journey to explore new job prospects began with a surprise phone call. Their paths converged at Western Connecticut State University in a pioneering program collaboration during 2013 with Workforce Opportunity Services (WOS) and Prudential Financial Inc. that has opened new horizons for Connecticut veterans of the U.S. armed forces seeking fresh opportunities for employment in corporate America.

“I had been out of school for six months and couldn’t get a callback from my job applications,” recalled Smith, whose five years’ military service included deployments in Qatar and South Korea. “Then I got a phone call out of the blue from Patrick and my reaction was, ‘This is too good to be true — this can’t actually be happening to me!’”

His caller was Patrick Spurgeon, program and client service manager for WOS. Founded by Dr. Arthur Langer of Columbia University, WOS is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the goal of organizing collaborative programs among higher education institutions, community organizations and private businesses to prepare veterans and other underserved populations for employment in the corporate workplace.

Spurgeon, a U.S. Navy veteran whose 27-year military career included tours of duty on five submarines as well as assignments on the faculty of the Naval Submarine School in Groton and the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Guard in Washington, D.C., was assigned shortly after joining WOS to coordinate recruitment of fellow veterans for the new educational program established in January 2013 by WOS and Western. The six-month program of instruction offered at Western at Waterbury, culminating in the WCSU award of Certification in Project Management, was designed to place participating veterans as full-time consultants working at Prudential subsidiaries in Hartford and Shelton. Building on previous WOS project collaborations in other states, the program at Western marked the first time that a Connecticut university has joined forces with WOS and a private sector partner to prepare veterans for corporate employment opportunities.     

From an initial pool of 44 applicants recruited through local military bases, veterans organizations, online job search resources, word-of-mouth and personal calls, WOS and Western invited 27 prospective participants for pre-screening evaluation and ultimately accepted 14 veterans to begin the program in March. Spurgeon worked with the four adjunct professors assigned by Western to the program to assess students’ progress during the first three-month term and select those participants who stayed on for a second term of instruction while beginning consulting work at Prudential on a part-time basis.

Stevens and Smith were among 10 veterans who successfully completed the custom-designed classes offered by Western in project management, analysis and design, problem-solving and decision-making, mentoring and business writing. Certificates recognizing their achievement were awarded at a graduation ceremony held in October by Western at Waterbury on the Naugatuck Valley Community College campus. Program graduates are now employed by WOS to serve as full-time consultants at Prudential Retirement in Hartford and Prudential Annuities in Shelton, and Prudential has committed to offering full-time positions to each of the program graduates after allowing sufficient time for each consultant to build job skills and acclimatize to their new corporate environment.

WCSU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Jane McBride Gates observed that the university and WOS shared a common interest in bringing to Connecticut the opportunity for local veterans to utilize the WOS VETalent Project Management Program as a bridge to employment in the civilian sector. With full support from university President James W. Schmotter, Gates and Langer succeeded within three months in establishing the basis for signing on Jan. 29, 2013, of a letter of agreement establishing terms for cooperation between WCSU and WOS to offer the certificate program at Western.

“This type of collaboration provides what we often refer to as the public good,” Gates remarked. “This program demonstrates the value of fostering an interrelationship among the nonprofit, private and public sectors. We have come together to have a positive impact on the economy, to enable participants to pursue higher education certification, and to recognize the value of our veterans’ contributions in the workforce in a way that we often have failed to do in the past.”

Gates credited Spurgeon and WCSU Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Ann Atkinson with carrying out the difficult task on a very tight deadline to recruit veterans, hire adjunct faculty, structure the program curriculum and evaluate applicants in time to begin classes at the Western at Waterbury campus in mid-March. Atkinson said she received critical support from Academic Affairs administrative assistant Mary Jane Keane as well as Western at Waterbury secretary Catherine Langellotti in clearing the administrative hurdles and negotiating the complicated logistics to start instruction on schedule.

“One of the biggest challenges in launching this undertaking within such a short timeframe was to hire faculty outside the traditional semester structure,” Atkinson said. “Our office and Patrick worked together to find adjunct professors and made sure that they passed muster to teach the courses we had identified for the program.”

Spurgeon emphasized that the program’s success depended heavily on continuing and close collaboration with Prudential management in Hartford and Shelton, who provided crucial input in structuring the curriculum and remained actively engaged in assessing course content and goals throughout the six-month period of VETalent certificate instruction at Western.    

“We work with project managers at the sponsoring company as we go through development of the program,” he said. “We received a needs assessment from Prudential managers, they told us what their expectations were, and they described the skill sets and knowledge base required for successful employment at their company.”

Spurgeon said that it was assumed at the outset that veterans entering the program came with limited or no previous experience in project management. The first three-month term of the WCSU program focused on building basic knowledge in this area as well as necessary communication and interpersonal skills to succeed in a corporate work setting, setting foundations for more advanced instruction in the second term. Atkinson noted that Spurgeon regularly sat in on classes both to assess participants’ progress and to ensure that course material met the requirements established by Prudential.

The 10 veterans who finished the six-month program celebrated their accomplishment with their families and representatives from Western and WOS at an Oct. 16 graduation ceremony marked by the recurring theme that “this experience seemed too good to be true,” Atkinson said. “Prudential has borne the cost of the program, and the students have been asked to demonstrate their passion and their commitment to succeed. We worked together to make sure that any impediments that may have stood in the way of veterans’ success in the program have been removed.”

Members of the graduating class included Stevens, of Hartford; Smith, of Canton; Elizabeth Adcock, of Ellington; Margaretta Affeldt, of Norwich; Frank Cima, of New London; Angel Cortes, of Waterford; and Kenny Chitacapa, Mark Cowell, Bryant Drye and Victor Hernandez, all of New Haven.

Stevens, who shared her graduation with her grandmother, mother, stepfather and brother, recalled the joyful exuberance that her mother showed “every time they mentioned the word ‘veteran’” at the ceremony. Their pride in her achievement has continued to grow as she has assumed responsibilities at Prudential as an information technology project manager, gaining valuable IT experience in budgeting, resource development and other fields as she weighs future career options in corporate finance. Noting that many employers remain reluctant to hire veterans or accommodate deployments for reservists on active duty, she urged more corporate executives to follow Prudential’s lead in taking advantage of the work ethics and skills instilled in armed forces veterans. “The military provided me with the discipline to work productively,” she said.

Smith had anticipated he would follow in his father’s footsteps in pursuing a civilian career as a pilot before Spurgeon’s invitation to join the WOS program at Western challenged him to consider business project management as his vocation. “Everyone at Prudential has been very supportive in allowing me to work on strategic initiatives, shadow project management, update project plans and schedules, and help with project evaluations. Slowly but surely, I am gaining more responsibilities.

“As a nation, we should do everything we can in America to give our veterans the opportunity to contribute in the civilian sector, using the skills we learned throughout our military careers and getting the chance to show what we can do,” Smith added. “In the military, the ‘get it done’ attitude becomes a trait deeply engrained in you: You take pride in what you do, and you’re always going to do that job in the best way you can.”

Stevens and Smith agreed that the WOS program at Western represents a model for opening the door to new employment opportunities in the often difficult transition from the military to civilian sectors. “I would tell other veterans that this program provides you with a path forward and an opportunity to develop a professional career in business,” Stevens said. “If you work hard on yourself, you’re doing your job.”

Smith noted his deployments while on active duty during his undergraduate studies often left him feeling isolated when he returned to the classroom. He stressed the importance of the welcoming and mutually supportive learning environment that he discovered in the VETalent program at Western.

“The best part of this program is that it gives you a comfort level studying and working with other veterans,” Smith said. “It is reassuring to know that every other veteran in this program, however different our individual stories, has shared common experiences. I could sit and talk with every member of our class, and they knew exactly what was going on — they were coming from the same place that I was.”

Gates observed that she has already received expressions of interest in establishing new certificate programs for veterans at Western modeled on the successful 2013 collaboration with WOS. “I am convinced that we need more programs like this for veterans, and I am very interested in looking at another type of certificate that we can offer in cooperation with WOS and a private sector partner in the future,” she said.      

For more information, contact the Office of University Relations at (203) 837-8486.         

 

Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.

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