Pre-college scholars in WSB’s Business Emerging Leaders (BEL) Program didn’t receive the same on-campus experience that they typically would this year, but the shift to virtual delivery brought many positive outcomes all the same. Karen Stroud-Felton, director of student success and pre-college programs, believes there is much to learn and celebrate from this pivot.
The BEL Program, which began in 2017, is a donor-funded initiative that helps prepare top-performing high school students from diverse and underrepresented backgrounds for a college education and a future career in business. The program typically brings students to campus every summer for three years, beginning the summer after 10th grade. Students who are admitted to UW–Madison and major in business are granted a full-tuition scholarship for four years of attendance.
Participation in BEL gives students a distinct competitive advantage when adjusting to college life, learning in classes, and applying for internship opportunities.
WSB: Typically BEL students are in residence on campus during the summer. How did the program respond to the shift to a virtual environment?
Karen Stroud-Felton: The 72 participating scholars took all of their classes synchronously online. When we decided that we were going to go online, we conducted a technology audit. We were able to provide laptops and internet hotspots to students who needed them. We didn’t want technology to be a barrier to full participation for any student. Students were disappointed that they wouldn’t get to spend time on campus, but they were really excited that the program continued.
WSB: The community-building aspect of this program is huge. How was that nurtured online instead of in person?
KSF: BEL alums who are now WSB undergraduate students helped build community with the BEL cohort by doing online activities—scavenger hunts, watching movies, playing games. They are very fluent in the language of being online and finding ways to connect, so they provided opportunities for students to engage outside the academic arena.
WSB: Were there any silver linings?
KSF: The shift to virtual has allowed us to enhance our communication touchpoints with pre-college scholars during the academic year. We used to rely on phone call check-ins, but what we’ve learned in terms of using technology for virtual engagement will mean that we can have even stronger connections with them when they’re not on campus with us.
WSB: Three cohorts of BEL students have matriculated at WSB. What has their experience taught you?
KSF: With each cohort, we’re learning different questions to ask and we’re finding different opportunities to support them. With the first cohort, we gained understanding of how to best support students through high school and successful admission to the university. With the second cohort, we started to think about what is needed in terms of supporting students to be broadly engaged in the School. The question for us now is around supporting their future success. We want to help them think about what their four-year trajectory can and should look like. We are exploring how to engage with other units within the undergraduate program and the School, like study abroad, career coaching, and academic advising to help students reach their potential.
WSB: What does the future of BEL look like in the context of the pandemic?
KSF: While we’re continuing to manage the impacts of COVID-19, we will maximize technology while still giving students a very strong, high-touch experience. We’re exploring ways to offer resources like presentations, leadership conferences, and mentoring in a virtual way. We’re also finding ways to make sure students know that they’re not alone, which becomes even more important when we can’t be physically in each other’s presence.
WSB: Aside from delivery mode, what’s next for the BEL Program?
KSF: We are focused on making sure that this isn’t just a standalone pre-college program, but that it is a first step on the path to a successful and meaningful college experience and career launch. And we want to deliver that kind of experience to as many students as we can.
WSB: Are there other pre-college programs in the pipeline?
KSF: We are working on an entrepreneurship camp for middle school students this coming year, drawing on work that had previously been done in the Small Business Development Center. We are also actively exploring opportunities to engage young women leaders, helping them step into their greatness and become the next generation of leaders who will change the world.