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Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

Preparing for post-grad with the ‘Next Step Program’

Professor Nikki Harken creates class to teach students essential life skills
Students in Professor Nikki Harken’s “Next Step Program” pose for a group photo.

In a classroom on the top level of Lang Hall at 8 a.m. on Wednesdays, a group of 35 communication and media students are learning “how to survive in the real world.”

They cover everything from how to do taxes to negotiating job offers from Professor Nikki Harken’s “Next Step Program,” which aims to equip students with applicable post-graduation knowledge. Harken recently won a cash prize and university support to move forward with her research into the development of programs that will help students make the transition from students to post-graduates. 

Graduating senior and communications major Katy Schnormeier said taking the course has helped her gain invaluable knowledge as she prepares for life outside of college. 

“I remember going in for one of the first classes and (Professor Harken) asked, ‘Okay, what are things that you guys are scared of after graduating?’ I raised my hand and I said, ‘taxes’ because I felt like I didn’t know anything. This was the first time I filled out my own tax return information, and I wasn’t sure I did it right.”

Students in Professor Nikki Harken’s “Next Step Program” listen to a guest speaker. The class covers everything from insurance policies to communicative professionalism. (COURTESY)

Bell Rogers, an Interactive Digital Studies major, said she has also found great value in taking this class.

“I really like how we’re dealing with real life experiences,” Rogers said. “We talk about a lot of things like finances, taxes, and our online presence which I’ve found really helpful. It’s been a great opportunity.”

Harken said she first started the Next Step Program because as a first generation student, she recognized the need to inform students about “adulting.”

“I have great relationships with our alumni and I was asking them how their transition from university went. I asked, ‘were you ready? Was it an easy transition? Were you happy?’ And time after time after time, alumni were saying I was ready to do the work, but I was not ready to do all the adulting things. They said they had no clue how to read a contract, had no clue how to navigate health insurance, and didn’t know who to turn to to ask for help.”

Harken sought to change that, creating the Next Step Program through the Communication and Media internship program in 2019. The purpose: Helping students become better prepared for life outside of college, leveling the playing field for students and reducing stress for students nearing graduation.

Pullquote Photo

“I really try to demystify so many of those things. I would love to see every student on campus have access to the information they need post-graduation.”

— Professor Nikki Harken

The curriculum covers how to search for jobs, how to create an online professional presence, how to navigate the first six months after graduation, employee benefits, retirement and investing, taxes, personal budgeting, discrimination and harassment, relocation, interviewing tips, and negotiating job offers among other topics. 

“I really try to demystify so many of those things,” Harken said. “I would love to see every student on campus have access to the information they need post-graduation.”

Rogers said she would highly recommend this program be expanded campus-wide for all students.

“What we’re learning about in the program isn’t just for communication majors,” Rogers said. “You really learn about things everyone needs to know.”

Schnormeier also said she would recommend expanding this program to include all majors.

“Anyone would benefit from this because not everybody knows everything about real world experiences,” Schnormeier said. “Having experts come in and give us advice and information is a big thing. Even if you have your parents telling you what to do, sometimes that isn’t the best way to do it.”

Another student in the class, Allie Borgerding, said she has enjoyed the sessions on retirement and 401Ks among other topics.

“It’s really nice to take it one topic at a time. I think these are good life skills, and it’s helped ease my fear of graduating a little bit.”

Schnormeier said her main takeaway from these classes is, “everything is going to be okay.”

“All of the people (Harken) has brought in have almost said, in some form, ‘everything will be okay. You will figure it out.’ I think just hearing that from the people who know their stuff has been a big weight lifted off my shoulders.”

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