Eastern Oregon University officials toured job sites around Umatilla and Morrow counties on Thursday as they search for new ways to partner with businesses in the region.

The university is bringing a new focus on “experiential learning,” with a hope that every student will graduate with hands-on experience in the business community through internships, job shadows, freelance work, research projects on behalf of businesses and more.

“As we’re looking at curriculum, we’re having an emphasis shift from what classes are you taking, to what skills are you learning,” said Edward Henninger, dean of EOU’s new college of business.

To have those opportunities for every student, the university will need to look beyond La Grande and into surrounding communities. Henninger and other officials gathered business leaders for a luncheon in Hermiston during their tour Thursday to solicit feedback on building those opportunities in Umatilla and Morrow counties.

Several of those present on Thursday who work in Eastern Oregon are EOU alumni, including Greater Hermiston Area Chamber of Commerce Director Kimberly Nevil. But EOU President Tom Insko said when he asks seniors in April about their post-graduation plans, the most common thing he hears is that after graduation they plan to move to Boise, Idaho or Seattle, and then begin looking for a job there.

He wants to see more students tell him they already have a job set up locally.

“Being an alum of EOU and having had it transform my life, for me it’s all about the students and how we can help them connect their educational experiences with business and community,” he said.

Now that the institution is on more solid financial footing, there are new initiatives it is turning its focus to.

Henninger was hired after the school split its business and education colleges this year and gave each its own dean. EOU is also adding a new major next year called Sustainable Rural Systems, which will help students gain an understanding of rural communities through projects and classes around subjects, such as environmental resources and rural economics.

EOU is starting the Rural Engagement and Vitality Center. The REV, as they’re calling it, will reach out to area communities and take ideas about how to better connect students to the local business community. Academic Vice President Tim Seydel said it will be a one-stop place where people interested in partnering with students can present their ideas and have EOU staff look into the logistics of making it a reality.

“Many times those things turn into jobs,” he said.

As an example of on-the-job learning, Greg Smith, who runs EOU’s Small Business Development Center, brought two student employees of the SBDC.

The students’ jobs include tasks, such as helping local businesses set up a website and providing confidential assistance to people hoping to start a business for the first time.

C.J. Kindle and Patrick Collins, both seniors from Heppner, said they will graduate with experience putting together a professional business plan thanks to the job opportunity.

“I’ve learned a lot from my courses, but I’ve learned even more from this,” Kindle said.

Business and civic leaders at the luncheon Thursday urged EOU to actively advertise its need for internships and other job-site learning opportunities for their students. Insko said he wanted to also look for more opportunities to partner with Blue Mountain Community College, which already does a good job with offering experiential learning.

“How can we leverage what they do, for students who go on to a four-year degree?” he said.

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