Professor Mitchell Alegre is encircled by students in his management principles course, creating what Alegre calls a 'learning community.'

Students taking a management principles course at Niagara University are being presented with an opportunity to make a major difference in the community.

One section of MGT 271 is working with the Niagara Area Habitat for Humanity on a variety of tasks that will ultimately lead to the construction of a home for a family in need. The other class section is performing a study to help determine the feasibility of a satellite campus in Niagara Falls for the Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology.

Both projects are being coordinated through the Rev. Joseph L. Levesque, C.M. Institute for Civic Engagement, Niagara University’s center for community outreach.

Professor Mitchell Alegre runs the class as what he terms a “learning community,” with the students serving as project managers, and the Habitat for Humanity and BCAT as their clients. Alegre says that the assignments are intended to help the students learn through application – while upholding NU’s mission of service to others.

“I don’t want my students to simply learn about management; I want them to learn how to manage,” Alegre explains.

Alegre’s approach is a departure from the traditional classroom setting. Each time his classes meet, they’re required to reposition the room’s desks and chairs to form a circle where everyone is presented on equal ground. The process is timed, which encourages the students to work collaboratively in the most efficient way possible. Fifty-six seconds is the fastest Alegre has seen the task completed, for the record.

Once the circle is arranged, the students deliberate on how to improve the process, before launching into discussions related to their community-based projects. Alegre readily admits that his mentees will be graded – by their clients and peers, nonetheless – on results, not effort. His goal is to impress on the students that in the professional world, customers are concerned almost exclusively with outcomes.

“How can we attain our goals with the highest quality while utilizing our resources most efficiently?” Alegre asks his students during class. “To your clients, it doesn’t matter how fast you’re running if you’re running in the wrong direction.”

Those principles are communicated by Alegre on the first day of class. By their third meeting this semester, the students were listening to David Karwick, board chair of the Niagara Area Habitat for Humanity, talk about the plight of the Niagara Falls community, where 24.9 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

The group working with the Habitat for Humanity is comprised of 37 students. Based on their skills and interests, they are assigned to one of six workgroups: business plan development, family selection, finance/fundraising, marketing/social media, building design and site selection, or construction. Each workgroup then designates a liaison to maintain contact with a representative from the nonprofit.

Junior communication studies major Rachel Gromlovits is the marketing contact for the Habitat section. She says that her group is excited about the possibility of helping to double the organization’s output of one new home constructed per year. And although it’s unlikely that her team will see the tangible fruit of their labors before the semester ends in May, they’re happy to hand the project off at that time, knowing that they’ve moved Habitat one step closer to achieving Karwick’s goal of building eight new homes annually.

“Professor Alegre considers us ‘professionals-in-training,’” Gromlovits says. “This class is so different in that it’s a business-like environment from the get-go. There isn’t a textbook. We talk about organizational techniques, flowcharts, departmentalization and how to manage. Then, we try to figure things out ourselves. It really gives us a chance to take an active role in our learning.”

The second project differs in the sense that the students are involved in potentially creating a new entity. The Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology, opened in 2013, is based on Pittsburgh’s Manchester Bidwell Corporation, a nationally recognized arts and training center founded in 1969 by Bill Strickland. Manchester Bidwell results indicate that 85 percent of adults who go through its program attain employment, and over 90 percent of high school students enrolled in its arts programs graduate from high school. (For comparison, the graduation rate at Niagara Falls High School is 73 percent.)

Buffalo is the eighth U.S. city to replicate Strickland’s model.

The Niagara University group is tasked with determining if a satellite campus in Niagara Falls makes sense. In doing so, they have formed six committees that mirror a hub-and-spoke model of practical learning: space/location, finance/fundraising, business plan development, marketing/communications, youth programming, and adult workforce development programming. The students remain in constant contact with the steering committee co-chairs of the Niagara Falls initiative, Dr. David Taylor, director of the Levesque Institute, and Natalie Beilein, principal of Beilein Consulting LLC.

Sophomore CIS major Danielle Allan is one of the students involved in the feasibility study. A shift manager at the Jim’s Steakout in West Seneca, Allan says she’s been able to translate much of what she’s learning to her position.

“Professor Alegre has taught us effective ways to motivate each other. He talks about the importance of clearly delineating tasks and responsibilities to employees. Those are the types of things that I’m excited to learn,” says Allan, who will help formulate a two-year marketing plan for the proposed BCAT satellite program as part of her class project.

Another nuance of Alegre’s learning community is that students can actually be “fired” from their committees, and what constitutes grounds for dismissal is determined by the committee itself. Allan says that her group will not permit members missing three consecutive meetings, dressing inappropriately, or failing to complete three tasks.

“If that happens,” she says, “they have to see if another group is willing to hire them.”

And that’s a lesson best learned in college.

For more information, please contact Alegre at 716.286.8334 or ude.aragain@ergelam.

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