The New England Award (NEA) was established by the University of New England (UNE) in 2004. The primary aim of the NEA is to recognise and reward students’ personal and professional development through extra-curricular activity carried out concurrently with academic studies. There are three categories of NEA eligible activities: (1) extra-curricular learning and training; (2) professional development; and (3) contribution to the university and local communities. Participation in NEA-eligible activities earns NEA points for both completion of the activity and demonstrated commitment and success in the activity.
UNE is located in the town of Armidale in northern New South Wales, Australia. It has approximately 18,000 students with more than two thirds studying externally via distance education. Originally, the NEA program was available to internal students only with the aim of encouraging participation in the broad range of extra-curricular opportunities that are available on-campus. After a three year pilot period, the University Council was so pleased with student participation and outcomes that it requested an extension of the program in order to include off-campus students. This posed a huge challenge as our external students are located right across Australia and the huge distances prevented close monitoring of participation. The solution was to form relationships with national organisations that use volunteers and subsequently develop links with national service clubs, community support groups, governmental and non-governmental organisations, churches, art societies, advocacy organisations and en-vironmental groups right across Australia.
Combining leadership development and community contribution
Students who register for the NEA are required to plan their activities; inform the relevant activity providers and employers/ supervisors that they are NEA students – so that their performance can be monitored – and keep a record of their activities in an e-portfolio.
There are two levels of achievement. Participants receive a New England Certificate after having recorded 1000 points worth of eligible activities across the three NEA activity categories. The New England Certificate complements and endorses students’ own records of activities and achievements and enhances their resumes. The New England Award is received by students who have accrued 1,000 NEA points while also achieving a credit grade point average in their academic studies, and have successfully written a 5,000 word reflective journal about their personal and professional development. This requirement is included to en-courage critical reflection and the exploration and articulation of personal journeys, achievements and experiences, and also to encourage students to plan and take responsibility for their learning. This two-tiered approach encourages wide participation but maintains the prestige of the award which is conferred as an additional testamur at official graduation ceremonies along with university degrees.
Action research has ascertained that there are multiple benefits being derived from the NEA. The program has raised students’ awareness of the value of extra-curricular activity in terms of personal and professional development. It has contributed to their leadership capacity by encouraging them to plan and take control of their leadership development through extra-curricular training opportunities and by recognising the importance of elected and appointed leadership positions both on-campus and in students’ local communities. Another very important outcome is that it has awakened in many an awareness of community contri-bution and civic engagement.
Developing the ‘well-rounded’ student that employers of graduates want
When asked about what they gain from participating in the NEA students have said:
• Working towards a goal has increased my motivation and wish to achieve and develop different skills;
• The motivation to continue to be involved and also the satisfaction of achieving the 1000 points. I found it gave me a real and achievable goal to work towards.
Others have said that the NEA encouraged them to be more involved than in the past. For example:
• It has increased my social awareness, motivated me to attempt things I had previous-ly put off.
NEA students have said that the NEA resulted in a more broad university experience. For example:
• Working towards the required number of points made sure that we experienced an array of situations and aspects of university life;
• It has given me a more rounded ex-perience, instead of just concentrating on academic matters. It has given me the incentive to try things I had previously put off doing;
• Realising that there is a lot more I can accomplish during my time at university rather than just my degree.
The benefit derived from the NEA’s reflective component has also been prominent. For example:
• Reflection! It’s great to sit down and reflect and write down achievements. I probably wouldn’t have done this otherwise and would forget the specifics about certain activities I have been involved in. The reflective journals have enabled me to stop and take stock of the skills I have acquired from the various activities;
• Registering for NEA has made me a more accountable person, in that the written requirements made me analyse and evaluate the role and/or activity I participated in. It was interesting to look back on what I had been involved in and reflect on what I had gained from those experiences.
The result has been a win-win for all involved. Community organizations have a ready source of volunteers. They can also be sure of the student volunteers’ commitment and know that there is both incentive for and recognition of their efforts. The student volunteers understand that the volunteering provides opportunities to develop important life skills and that these are as important as academic goals for the ‘well-rounded’ student which is what we are hearing that employers of graduates want. By focusing students’ attention on the benefits to be de-rived from extra-curricular activity, particularly activities involving community service and working to support others, desirable personal qualities such as confidence, altruism, community spirit, personal responsibility, empathy and citizenship are also enhanced. These are typical types of personal attributes, attitudes and human qualities being increasingly expounded in the graduate attribute literature.
Indeed, we are hearing from employers that they value what the New England Award represents, that student achievement through volunteering and other extra-curricular activity is sanctioned by the Univer-sity, and that employers can have confi-dence in the validity of its worth. Indeed, a survey of employers has confirmed that they value the NEA. Respondents placed a strong emphasis on the enhancement of em-ployability followed by the development of ‘life’ skills. Typical comments about employ-ability are:
• Shows work experience. Gives employers knowledge that the student has goals and personal willpower to achieve them. Also that they have experience of task management;
• Prospective employers will see demonstrated people skills which are highly regarded in the workplace. It shows that (the) student is prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ which is well regarded in any business;
• Shows that the student is a hard worker and willing to put in extra effort;
• These days it is a very competitive environment so an additional certificate or qualification like the NEA should advance employment opportunities.
In conclusion, we believe that by recognising and rewarding extra-curricular student development in this way, we are gaining more engaged and satisfied students which we know from the retention literature impacts on student success and retention. The development of community awareness and good citizenship skills through volunteering, leadership experience and professional development outside the university context concurrently with tertiary studies is resulting in enhanced employability of graduates. We are also building more meaningful ties with the communities of our students.