Efforts to ensure students continue to gain key work skills through internship opportunities despite the pandemic, has led to a new project which draws on digital innovation and attracted major funding.

Covid-19 has had a significant impact on the economy with many businesses left facing an uncertain future.

These extraordinary times were not ringfenced to the commercial sector and saw UK universities adapting to online learning.

The University of Sunderland embraced the transition to ensure all students received ongoing subject learning through an interactive online model.

However, continuing to enhance their employability skills through placements and internships during the lockdown also needed creative solutions.

Project Change Maker has provided the solution by offering all students a chance to take part in a virtual six-week placement with companies across the UK, as well as a cash award of £150, funded by the University’s own Silver Fund, set up to enhance and enrich the student experience.

Fifteen students were selected for the award following a competitive process in which they took part in online sessions with prominent alumni graduates working in businesses around the world, who offered advice and a unique insight into their success.

Students then pitched to a panel of experts about the experience and how it has benefited their learning.

Based on the strength of their pitch, successful students landed high-impact virtual placements with companies such as The Bunker, Sharp Media, Dynamo and CACHE Alumni, creating solutions to a specific business project.

Dr Derek Watson, an Associate Professor in Cultural Management in the Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism, who organised the project alongside the University’ Development Office and Futures Team, the University’s careers service, said: “Leading the project has been a highly rewarding experience.

“It reflects our inclusive approach in working with the Futures and the Development team in enriching our student learning and employability prowess.

“It also showcases our effective learning strategies in offering students at all levels the knowledge and skills to demonstrate commercial impact outside of their chosen programmes of study.

“The positive feedback received from employers equally reflects that despite the challenges of the global pandemics our students can still deliver.”

The University of Sunderland’s Vice Chancellor, Sir David Bell, added: “Despite the many difficulties created by the pandemic, the last 15 months has seen significant innovation at the University of Sunderland.

“Project Change Maker is a great example as it demonstrates flexible and adaptable thinking on the part of both students and staff.

“Crucially too, it provides our students with much-needed work placement at this time of great economic uncertainty.”

The virtual internship gave students essential work experience and a chance to investigate and put together commercial solutions, improving their career prospects.

They were also given access to inspirational business leaders including Chris Ashton, Chief Executive Officer and Managing Director of global company Worley.

All students who took part in the project were given a Project Change Makers certificate signed by the Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism Dean, Professor Lawrence Bellamy.

All digital placement students receive an employer testimonial, a Sunderland Futures Digital Badge and a University of Sunderland Change Maker trophy of achievement, as well as a cash award.

The project’s successful impact has also led to an extension of the initiative where students have the opportunity to work an additional 50 hours on placement around their studies and receive an additional £500 prize thanks to the support of Santander.

Santander will fund future Change Maker projects under the new title Santander Change Maker Project as a permanent employability opportunity for all students.

Matt Hutnell, Director, Santander Universities UK, said: “Santander is committed to supporting higher education as well as local communities across the UK.

“We’re proud to partner with The University of Sunderland on their Change Maker programme which was born out of a need to provide virtual work experience for students when physical and onsite work experience ceased due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are delighted that the University can continue this programme with the support of Santander funding.”

What Students say

Both Stella Examilioti and Claire Proctor are seeing the benefits of Project Change Maker on their work-based skills since signing up for the initiative.

First year Media, Culture and Communications student Stella, from Greece, wanted to get involved in a project that would take her out of her comfort zone and enhance her experience and knowledge.

The 18-year-old said: “I am trying to expand my skills as much as I can, in order to have the ability to build a good foundation for my future career, Project Change Maker was a great place to start!”

She adds: “When I first applied for a position in Project Change Maker, I was aware of the fact that many of the other students would be older and because of that more skilled than me.

“Despite all that, I felt very confident in myself and proud  to be selected. It was a small win and made me very happy.”

Stella was assigned to a company called Sharp Media, and her job was to create a marketing plan for a podcast, aimed at men’s mental health.

Stella said: “Throughout the placement, the CEO of the company was very helpful and this definitely made me feel more secure about my work.

“I really enjoyed working for Sharp Media and I was very happy that the company wanted to further my internship for 55 more hours.

“Working at Sharp Media is a wonderful experience and has definitely helped me understand what it’s like to work for this type of company.

“I see myself working in a similar company in the future and delighted that this opportunity was given to me!”

Claire Proctor, 23, from County Durham, is in the second year of a PhD in Business and Management, and thought Project Change maker was a great opportunity to further develop her business acumen in marketing.

She began a six-week placement with CACHE Alumni, a professional membership network designed to help individuals and organisations within the care and education sectors, bringing insight and support to the team in her role as SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and Marketing Copy Writing Consultant/ Advisor.

As a result of her work CACHE ALUMNI now has more new members, with 82% of visitors to the website are now new visitors, the website is also now top of the list for searches that feature their company name.

Claire says Project Change Maker has supported your career goals through increased understanding of business acumen in relation to applying marketing theory to practice.

She added: “I develop a further appreciation for working under pressure to what were sometimes quite tight turnaround times.

“The project increased my confidence in my ability to guide a team through a live project in a way that predicted and incorporated the impact of live market level changes.

“I also gained a deeper understanding of how to use marketing softwares for a specific company focus.”