The region that stretches from the New River Valley to Lynchburg and north to the Alleghany Highlands has more college students per capita than any other part of the commonwealth. But most of those students seek work elsewhere, and the region struggles to fill jobs.

The Center for Economic and Community Engagement, part of Outreach and International Affairs, is working to slow that exodus with a new program designed to connect students and young professionals to work-based learning opportunities in the region. Work-based learning can include internships, apprenticeships, job shadowing, mentorships, training programs, and career expos.

“Work-based learning is essential for students today, helping to develop more confident and competitive college graduates who are ready for post-college work,” said John Provo, director of the center. “The goal of this program is to raise awareness of the opportunities students have right here in the region.”

Tasked to lead the new Regional Internship Collaborative is Quina Weber-Shirk, who is joining the center from the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, where she was a county extension agent for community and school gardens. For years, Weber-Shirk enjoyed tending to plants and ensuring they thrive. Now, she is helping talent grow and take root here.

“There are incredible initiatives around work-based learning that are happening all around this area, but there is the potential to take these projects even further,” Weber-Shirk said. “This new program will allow us to reach even more students and employers by building stronger partnerships.”

In her early career, Weber-Shirk’s work-based learning experiences guided her. An AmeriCorps teaching position she held for two years after college helped her discover a passion for supporting lifelong learning. “It is important for people to have access to work-based learning opportunities and for them to be compensated, so employees’ time and value are honored,” she said.

The Regional Internship Collaborative will focus on the GO Virginia Region 2 footprint, which covers 13 counties and five cities. The $250,000 project, funded by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, will strengthen existing GO Virginia Region 2 projects as well as other work-based learning opportunities in the area.

GO Virginia is a statewide initiative dedicated to creating higher-wage jobs in the commonwealth. The Center for Economic and Community Engagement is the support organization for GO Virginia’s Region 2.

“Work-based learning provides an opportunity to brand our companies and region as a great option after college,” said John Hull, executive director of the Roanoke Regional Partnership and a steering committee member for the Regional Internship Collaborative. “The GO Virginia Region 2 Stopping the Brain Drain project revealed that students on our regional campuses didn't have a strong perception of professional opportunities in the area. By mixing students and companies, our region has a better chance of keeping students on graduation day.”

The Regional Internship Collaborative team is composed of representatives from across the area — including higher education institutions, economic development organizations, workforce development boards, nonprofit groups, and chambers of commerce. Weber-Shirk will also work with Career and Professional Development at Virginia Tech to pull together career practitioners from other institutions in the region, including Radford University, Central Virginia Community College, the University of Lynchburg, and Sweet Briar College.

“I'm actively seeking input and hoping to learn from people,” Weber-Shirk said, “so I would love to meet with anyone who has insights about developing our work-based learning ecosystem.”

This fall, Weber-Shirk and her team are putting together an inventory of existing work-based learning opportunities. They will then look at how programs could be replicated or expanded in other places in the region.

“I look forward to meeting with others in the region to develop a way to build bridges between students and quality, paid work-based learning experiences that make a significant difference for both the students and the employers,” Weber-Shirk said. 

Written by Julia Kell

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