Intern’s Eye View: Can Experience Be Taught?

Erin Miller, a rising senior majoring in Community and Nonprofit Leadership in the School of Human Ecology, is the current intern for the Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies (the CommNS).


As a student here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison majoring in Community and Nonprofit Leadership, I have gotten to know a wide variety of professors and taken many different types of courses. Assignments ranged from building models using raw spaghetti and marshmallows to writing in-depth research papers. In the second semester of my junior year, I had an opportunity to work in depth with an organization around specific goals through a course. Jennifer Gaddis, a first-year assistant professor in the School of Human Ecology, opened a new world of study for me and the rest of my classmates in her course Inter-HE 345 “Strategic Planning for Nonprofits.”

Professor Gaddis takes professional development opportunities for her students seriously. In her view, strategic planning cannot be effectively learned when divorced from context. She uses case studies and a semester-long consulting project to immerse students in the complexities of strategic planning within different types of nonprofit and community organizations. This approach in the strategic planning course aligns with her broader goal to “design activities that do more than require superficial participation and tap into students’ intrinsic motivation to learn the skills that can help translate their passion into real social change.”

To help us learn by direct experience, Professor Gaddis had us work in groups of 3-4 as “strategic planning consultants” with local nonprofit and community-based organizations. At the beginning, we understood that this would be a semester-long project, but, being new to strategic planning, we didn’t know much beyond that. We ranked the project options in order of our interests, and then once assigned, we were set free. All of the organizations were different and they needed different things—there was no one-size fits all solution. We had to first understand where the organization was at, before we could work with them and Professor Gaddis to determine an appropriate project scope. To prepare for this initial discovery meeting, each group prepared a general interview guide to help keep us on track and organized.

This seems very broad to students who typically receive a specific rubric with certain points to hit for a given letter grade. This is all very intentional on Professor Gaddis’s part. While we did have one test of basic strategic planning terms, Professor Gaddis believes that there are other ways to assess students’ learning. She seeks to “push her students into areas of discomfort” in order for us to get practice and gain confidence in our ability to figure things out on our own, while simultaneously valuing the community organization’s time and needs. These acts of problem solving, finding accurate resources, and creating knowledge are all skills that students can use in any future career. “The results may not always be perfect, or exactly what you intend,” Professor Gaddis told me, “but it is important to help students move from simply assimilating knowledge to creating original work.”

I worked in a group that partnered with The Sewing Machine Project, a local Madison nonprofit that collects and distributes sewing machines around the country as a form of outreach, while also teaching individuals how to use them. During the semester, we held meetings with the Executive Director and Board President to figure out how we could best use our time and skills to help them better achieve their mission and vision. Unlike some of the other groups, they did not need for us to do interviews or survey of their stakeholders to inform a new strategic plan. They needed help increasing their visibility and measuring their impact, two tasks that fall more within the implementation and evaluation phases of a strategic planning process. Our team created an entire social media plan along with documents for them to use to inventory their impact.

Transferrable skills—things like analytical reasoning and strong writing capabilities—are developed over time. Getting an opportunity to try, possibly fail, get feedback, and try again, are all important steps in the learning process. In Inter-HE 345, an exam that would have consisted of putting memorized content onto a piece of paper was converted into a resume building effort that helped improve a nonprofit organization. This mutual benefit project created a whole new experience for students in our major. Students were able to walk away with information learned in the course and experience putting that information into practice. Students in her other course, Inter-HE 375 “Human Ecology of Food and Sustainability,” also get to experience this type of hands-on learning. According to Professor Gaddis, they went on several field trips, held in-class “tastings,” and published Food Work: Volume 1 – their own digital book of labor portraits based on oral histories that the students collected in partnership with UW-Madison’s Oral History Program.

Professor Gaddis is respected greatly among students in the Community and Nonprofit Leadership major since her teaching style seeks to build student capacity for critical thinking and agency as well as provide information and skills. When I asked her about what shaped her teaching style, she explained that she was fortunate to get early training in what is often referred to as “learner centered” teaching. She home schooled for many years as a child—active, experiential learning was the norm. As a graduate student, she spent two years on staff at the Yale Teaching Center where she was able to observe other college-level teachers and participate in discussions about best teaching practices. Here at UW-Madison, she was selected to participate in the one-year Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence (MTLE) Early Career Faculty Fellowship program.

When I spoke with her for this blog post, Professor Gaddis spoke eagerly about changes she hopes to make to both of her classes next term. Just as she expects us to learn from our mistakes and to constantly challenge ourselves to produce our best possible work, she holds herself to the same standard. Although she just finished her first year of teaching, I believe she is already well on her way to establishing a great reputation as both a teacher and scholar. Between implementing two great courses in the School of Human Ecology and writing a book based on her recent research (tentatively titled Civic Cookery: Food and Labor Justice in American Schools), Professor Gaddis is taking the University of Wisconsin-Madison by storm.


Please view our Center for Community and Nonprofit Studies webpage.

1 Comment

  • Michael Maguire, SoHE Faculty Associate (and Prof. Jen Gaddis CSCS colleague) says:

    Two awesome examples of what’s so great about our school and our CNPL major! Jen brings such positive energy to her work with students – she’s inspiring! Student-author Erin Miller shows why we’re proud of CNPL student leaders like her. Way to go!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *