IT Management | Feature

Involving Students in IT

IT shops are turning to students to staff help desks, troubleshoot, and more. For schools, it's a way to cut costs; for students, it's a learning experience and a pathway to employment.


Illustration by Aaron Sacco

Early in her freshman year at Quinnipiac University (CT), Brooke Eder took her laptop computer for servicing at the university's student help desk. Out of curiosity, she asked the person at the desk to explain the problem and how it was fixed.

"Oh, it's really complicated," came the reply.

This story, with an exclusive video interview, appeared in the October 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Eder, who was majoring in public relations, felt comfortable with computers but not with that attitude. She resolved to discover for herself how complicated such a repair would be. So she applied for a job of her own on the student help desk.

"It turned out to be the best decision I made," recalls Eder, who graduated from Quinnipiac in 2011 and now works full-time as a computer support specialist in the IT department at Boston University Medical Campus (MA). "The knowledge that I got as a student worker at Quinnipiac gave me the skill set I needed even though I didn't major in a computer field."

Helping students land tech jobs after graduation may be one of the most gratifying benefits of involving students in campus IT--but it's not the only one. Student workers can reduce IT costs and, equally important, they bring to the table a useful perspective: They are, after all, the IT department's constituents and can often provide insights that grizzled IT professionals might overlook.

Most colleges and universities utilize student workers in some IT capacity, ranging from grunt work to sophisticated software development. In the vast majority of cases, though, the work comprises entry-level duties. In such cases, a school's primary motivation is usually cost reduction.

Typically, students earn considerably less than full-time staff. At Oregon State University, for example, students earn $9 to $11 an hour. In comparison, the salary range for full-time, unionized IT consultants is $32,000 to $55,000 a year, according to Lucas Turpin, interim director of technology support services. That equates to $16 to $27 an hour. At Quinnipiac, students working in the schools' three Technology Centers start at the state minimum wage of $7.25, but they can earn up to $11 as a student supervisor.

Before rushing out to hire students, though, take time to ensure that the relevant union--if any--understands and supports what you are trying to achieve. In the case of OSU, for instance, "the union sees the benefit of student employees, because we're helping to prepare the workforce as part of students' education," notes Turpin.

It would also be a mistake to see student involvement solely in terms of dollars and cents--even for these entry-level positions. Students come to the table with a lot more than a willingness to work for less. "Oftentimes, students come at problems in a different way, because they have grown up with technology," says Turpin.

And, if the customer is always right, then it makes sense to understand that viewpoint at the outset. "Getting your customers involved in solving problems is the best way to make sure the solutions you come up with actually do what your customers want," explains Jim Waldo, CIO at Harvard University (MA).

IT Jobs for Students
While IT managers will sometimes tap especially talented students to work as consultants or developers, most students work within established programs with clearly defined--and often limited--responsibilities:

Help Desk. The most common student IT hire is help desk support. Of the nearly 100 students working in IT at OSU, for example, as many as 35 staff the general help desk. "They are the support folks," explains Turpin. "They answer the phones. They help write how-to articles for our websites. They keep the websites updated."

At Quinnipiac, student workers provide "the first tier of support," according to Bill Murphy, manager of client services. "That frees up the full-time staff that works at the help desk to do more things related to faculty, labs, and the like."

Murphy's department currently hires about 60 STARS (Student Technology Academic Resources) each year to staff the Technology Centers. The number of student staffers is expected to grow as the program is extended to Quinnipiac's new medical school.

"They actually have a lot of responsibility," notes Murphy. "The [student] supervisor basically runs the front desk, because I have to manage all three of our locations."

Even venerable Harvard hires student computing technicians for its Walk-in Support Center. The work typically involves installing antivirus software, adding memory to laptops, or helping recover homework that was accidentally deleted. For most--but not all--applicants, the job's appeal probably lies in the $12-an-hour pay, with an opportunity for raises of $1 an hour annually. "Very few Harvard graduates end up as computer technicians," notes Waldo. "But knowing what a computer technician does is a useful thing no matter what you end up doing."

A/V Aides. At Quinnipiac, as at many other institutions, student workers also help with audiovisual services. This includes checking equipment in and out, and providing basic support in the classroom should an instructor have trouble using a projector.

OSU's media services group even has a student multimedia services division, staffed primarily by students. They check out laptops, camcorders, cameras, and other devices. "And they'll actually sit down and train [other students] how to use these devices," notes Turpin.

In addition, students help set up the university's enhanced classrooms. "They help pull wire in the rooms, wire up TVs, and all that kind of fun stuff," adds Turpin.

Internships. Certain institutions, such as Michigan Technology University, hire interns to do more advanced work. At Michigan Tech, interns work with the user service, operations, infrastructure, and services teams on projects that "both assist the full-time employees and allow the interns to work and learn profound skills," says Margaret Landsparger, a senior personal computer specialist in the IT services and security department.

Aside from hiring about 90 of its own students to work in basic IT, Bowdoin College (ME) has an internship program that brings in five students each year from nearby Southern Maine Community College and Central Maine Community College.

"The interns work at a much higher level than the [Bowdoin] students would be working," explains Mitch Davis, CIO at the college, noting that most of the applicants are working toward networking degrees at the community college.

By the time the interns leave the Bowdoin program, they will likely have received certification in the Red Hat operating system and acquired at least two network certifications, such as Cisco Certified Network Associate.

"The goal is that, in a year's time, they could do it independently and could actually be the lead on a networking group," notes Davis. Another aim of the program is to create homegrown IT professionals in Maine, which has had difficulty attracting skilled workers from elsewhere.

One-Off Projects. Student participation does not have to be confined to established programs. Sometimes, it helps to enlist students for short-term initiatives. At Harvard, for example, Waldo's department sought input from the student senate on identifying wireless dead spots on campus. "They're more than happy to tell us they're having trouble with wireless," notes Waldo.

Bowdoin had a similar problem with cell phone reception, which was "horrible," according to Davis. So he charged a student advisory group with calling service providers about erecting a cell phone tower. After about two months of negotiating with Cingular (now AT&T), a tower was installed that provides four bars of coverage across campus.

"AT&T pays us about $24,000 a year to have that tower there," says Davis. "And that was all done with students. They learned how to negotiate. And they learned what it's like to work with vendors."

The Hiring Process
For students seeking a position in IT, the application process varies widely from institution to institution. Quinnipiac has "a huge process," according to Murphy. Applications are submitted via the university's career site; a program coordinator, who is also a student, then meets with the applicants before passing them along to Murphy and the other managers for interviews.

At Bowdoin, on the other hand, almost any student who wants to work in the Technology Centers can do so until the positions are filled, says Davis--there's not a rigorous interview process. The same cannot be said, however, for the five interns whom Bowdoin hires each year from nearby community colleges.

"Usually the top 2 percent of the class is recommended to be part of the internship program," explains Davis, "and we work with the community colleges and the professors to make sure that it's a good fit."

While technical expertise is an asset for any student worker or intern, it is far from the only quality that campus IT departments covet.

"We look for a strong work ethic, basic skills in the area where they will be placed, a positive attitude, and an interest in learning new skills," says Michigan Tech's Landsparger.

OSU hires students from every discipline, including a "very good showing" from engineering but--interestingly--few computer science students apply. The school asks prospective student workers about their interests and majors, so they can be slotted into jobs that play to their strengths. For example, an accounting major was recently able to gain "real-world experience" by working with a full-time staff member on the university's billing system.

Since customer service is a major focus of tech support, the focus there is more on people skills. "It's less about technology and more about making sure the customers have what they need and that they're happy," explains Turpin. "It doesn't matter if you are the best person in the world at fixing something: If you can't tease out what the problem is that [a customer is experiencing], you're never going to be able to fix it."

Tackling the Challenges
While the potential to save money and give students a leg up in the workplace has a powerful allure, IT managers should be aware that hiring student workers comes with its own set of challenges.

The biggest drawback is that "they are students first and employees second," notes Turpin. This means they aren't always available for a shift because of pending examinations or even social activities. Plus, students are usually restricted to a maximum of 20 hours of IT work a week during school terms, which further limits their availability.

The easiest way to mitigate this is by overstaffing. "We're not able to provide all the hours that all of our students want," says Turpin.

Quinnipiac solved its shift-management headaches with an online scheduling tool known as WhenToWork. Students sign in and indicate their availability for the coming week. "You just push on a button and it fills in the whole schedule for you based on when you can work," explains Murphy.

Scheduling aside, students do also require supervision, especially in the beginning. "Typically, they're always with a full-time staff member," says Turpin. "But it may be one full-time staff member working with anywhere from one to five students."

Finally, schools must be aware of privacy and security issues: Students may not be allowed access to certain data, machines, or networks. "We have a rule here that basically says staff support staff, students support students," notes Murphy.

Student Benefits
Whatever managerial hassles might be involved, bringing students into IT is generally a win-win proposition for both parties. And it's extremely gratifying when students go on to fulfilling careers in technology. That was certainly the case for Brooke Eder and for Turpin, who was a student IT worker himself in the mid-1990s.

"I learned how to punch down cables in the switch room, deploy phones, and program the phone switch," he recalls. It's an experience that he is happy to pay forward in his present role as interim director of technology support services. Former student IT workers have returned years later to thank him for their training, "because it really helped prepare them to be successful in whatever their industry is."

Tapping Student Expertise

Universities know full well how gifted some of their students are. The first campus mobile app, iStanford, was the product of underclassmen, for example, and there have been countless student-generated tech initiatives at institutions nationwide. While most IT departments operate formal programs (e.g., help desks) for hiring students, managers should also be alert for standout students who can take IT initiatives to the next level.

"Students are a great resource and don't be afraid to tap them," advises Lucas Turpin, interim director of technology support services at Oregon State University. "They have a lot of brainpower and a lot of great ideas."

It's a sentiment shared by Harvard University CIO Jim Waldo, who wants to "expand the input that students can give us as an IT organization. Our students are unbelievably smart, so they are tremendously creative in their approaches to problems. To not make use of that amount of talent would just be crazy."

Currently, a pair of Harvard students is working directly for Waldo as design consultants, reviewing software applications developed by the IT organization. And, recently, the university held a contest for students to submit designs for a revised landing page for my.harvard.edu, a personalized student information system. "In fact, we're now working on implementing one of those designs in conjunction with the students who submitted it," notes Waldo.

The school has also utilized the expertise of the undergraduate Harvard Computer Society to help write applications to search and manipulate online data held by Harvard, such as the course catalog. "It lets the students write applications against the course catalog that they really want," continues Waldo. "And all of this costs us nothing, because they want to do it."

For its part, Oregon State has employed computer science students "very effectively" as programmers to help design operational tools. Computer science majors have also worked with the university's server-management group to learn about configuring and patching servers. "That's typically less customer-facing stuff," says Turpin. "They interface more with the technicians."

In addition, his department assigns tech-savvy students to build software packages for campus workstations, and to assist full-time staff with redesigning computer-imaging processes, "where you have to have a really good, in-depth understanding of the technology," adds Turpin.

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