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University gives students space to work 'remotely'

By Marcus Hatfield
Journal Inquirer Of Manchester / November 26, 2011
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MANCHESTER, Conn.—While Elsa Nuñez knows American businesses will continue to outsource jobs, she doesn't see why those jobs necessarily have to go overseas.

Why not send them to Willimantic?

"My goal is to get companies to outsource to me, not to India," the Eastern Connecticut State University president said Thursday.

That's part of the thinking behind the "Work Hub," which opened this semester on the school's campus in Windham's downtown Willimantic section.

The hub, housed in Winthrop Hall, offers workspace for student interns who can work remotely for businesses and other organizations.

For the program's initial run, the university has partnered with Cigna, which has hired 12 Eastern students to work on a number of web development and other information technology projects for the Bloomfield-based financial services giant.

Thomas Boisjolie, a recruiting manager for Cigna's Technology Early Career Development Program, said that the partnership with Eastern is going well and that he's confident the company picked the right group of candidates. He added that while Cigna's development program isn't new, the partnership with ECSU is.

He said Cigna benefits from its development program in that it reaches out to quality students early in their careers and gives the company to chance to develop them and bring them on board once they graduate.

The students benefit as well, he said.

"They're being challenged," Boisjolie said. "We told them it wouldn't be just busy work, we're not just going to give you mundane work. The more you keep delivering, the more we're going to challenge you."

Alex Citurs, an assistant professor of business information systems at Eastern, said he has several students in the program. Having a facility on campus means that more students can take advantage of internship opportunities.

"In that sense, it's a win-win," Citurs said. "The organization gets more interaction and feedback and creative ideas from the students, and the students save money and on travel time and get a more valuable learning experience."

Rhona Free, the university's vice president for academic affairs, said the program is part of the school's emphasis on pre-professional experience before graduation.

"We have a long tradition of what's called experiential education, the idea that students don't just learn in the classroom, they should go out into the world and apply what they've learned in a supervised setting," Free said.

Nuñez said that all Eastern students are required to have some kind of pre-professional experience before graduation, whether it's through an internship, cooperative work experience, community service, or research. The goal is to provide a well-rounded education, she added, a "liberal education that's practically applied."

"Their employers can teach them skills, but they can't teach them to write well and think critically," Nuñez said.

Free said that the university hopes to attract other businesses and organizations -- including local small businesses and community organizations -- that could provide experience for the interns but may not be able to host them at their own sites.

If the program grows, Nuñez said, Eastern could expand the workspace into other areas on campus. Free said the existing space was renovated, furnished, and equipped with a combination of school and ECSU Foundation funds, though Cigna did provide some equipment for its own interns' use.

The school also worked with Cigna to beef up security in the hub to protect the company's data, and Nuñez said the same could be done for other employers who deal with sensitive information.

Citurs said the Cigna interns are paid, but Fee said that the program could include unpaid internships as well.

Boisjolie said Cigna is "eager to invest in young talent" in information technology.

"Investing the time and the money into an internship at ECSU or other schools that we're looking into is really going to position Cigna to find the talent we're looking for in the future to lead the different business areas, the IT areas," Boisjolie said.

Citurs said the students are excited about their internships and he is excited about the program.

"You do it because it's right for the students, and it's right for Connecticut," Citurs said. "It's great when I see alumni students come back and tell our current students about all the cool projects and initiatives they've been involved with.

"In this economy," he added, "when most of my students walk across the stage at graduation, they've got jobs. And good jobs."

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