As the spring semester comes to a close, 29 CONNECT graduate fellows from across campus wrap up their data and evaluation projects and prepare to present their work. The CONNECT program, developed and spearheaded by Dr. Patrick Bixler, identifies nonprofit and public-serving organizations in the Austin area that have scoped a data project and matches them with graduate students seeking applied evaluation or measurement-related experience.
This semester, CONNECT Fellows partnered with organizations such as Austin ISD, American Gateways, Bookspring, and Workers Defense Project. Since its beginning in Spring 2019, the program will have awarded $141,000 in fellowship funds to participating graduate students and has facilitated 77 projects to date with local organizations.
“We want to provide students with real-world, applied consulting experience,” said Alyssa Studer, the CONNECT Program Coordinator. “Knowing how to work with messy data sets is super helpful in making yourself marketable.”
This building of a variety of practical skills was one of the driving forces behind the creation of the CONNECT program, according to Dr. Bixler, an Assistant Professor of Practice at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service.
“Even though all fellowships start with a project that is scoped, they often change and evolve over the course of the semester,” said Dr. Bixler. “This reflects consulting in the public or social sectors and provides students with opportunities to hone their soft skills of project management, communication, adaptability, and leadership.”
Since its inaugural cohort in Spring 2019, several CONNECT alum have gone on to careers in consulting. LBJ alumnus Ryan Carlino participated in the first cohort of CONNECT projects, completing data analysis and visualizations for the City of Austin. He now works as a State and Local Government Management Consultant and recognizes the impact the CONNECT program had in his post-graduate career.
“[The CONNECT program] has been very instrumental in developing skills and opening a lot of doors for post-grad employment.” Carlino said.
Though he did not have much consulting experience before the CONNECT project, Carlino soon discovered he enjoyed the work. As a student at the LBJ School, Carlino learned how to work with data in programs like Stata and Excel, but noted that his experience in the CONNECT program helped him learn how to work with more realistic data sets than those provided in a classroom setting. Applying his knowledge to real data sets helped strengthen Carlino’s data visualization and analysis skills while also providing him with valuable work experience.
“As soon as I can tell people that I worked on this project with the city it gives me so much more legitimacy than saying I did a few cool projects for class,” Carlino said. “Nothing really grabs attention like my CONNECT experience.”
Even for some already interested in consulting, the CONNECT program provided an opportunity to gain applied experience outside of class. LBJ alumnus Rehan Hasan was offered a position at Deloitte early in the spring of his final year at LBJ and began working with the CONNECT program soon after. Hasan worked with the Austin-based nonprofit Capital IDEA, where he utilized much of the quantitative and qualitative data skills he learned through courses at LBJ. The CONNECT program, however, provided a unique opportunity to learn more about the client-consultant relationship.
“Working with people was something I had to learn,” Hasan said. “Like keeping your client first and tailoring what you do accordingly, and how to communicate to them that your data is meaningful.”
After graduating from the LBJ School, Hasan began working at Deloitte in the Austin Government Practice office, where he quickly utilized many of the relational skills he learned in the CONNECT program.
“On day one [at Deloitte], the learning curve was less steep because I already had some experience with real-life clients,” Hasan said.
This spring marks the first complete year of the CONNECT program and the graduation of six CONNECT Fellows. Graduating fellows include students from the LBJ School, dual-degree students with the School of Public Health, students earning a UT Austin Certificate in the Graduate Portfolio in Nonprofit and Philanthropic Studies, and one student completing their doctorate degree. The program will continue to bring together Austin-area organizations and skilled graduate students with several projects this summer and in the 2020-2021 school year.