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York College student-led HR conference makes digital pivot

Screenshot of HR class on Zoom

For Human Resource Management students, imagining a future where they train employees who outrank them in tenure can be daunting, says Samm Smeltzer, an Adjunct Professor at York College. So, she set out to change that. Students in her Human Resource Development class were tasked with a final project that would give them the project-based learning experience of training HR professionals.

“What we learn in this course is not how to know everything but how to use theory to generate space for individuals to grow,” Smeltzer says. She helped students put that into practice with Breath of Fresh HR, a student-led event that put them in the driver’s seat when it came to training and running a program. “This event proved that they are capable of utilizing the theory from class and applying it in the real world,” Smeltzer added.

Students surveyed HR professionals to learn what topics may be of interest to them. They came up with three that would become part of their training program: retention strategies for the new workforce, intergenerational conflict in the workplace, and toxic work environments. When COVID-19 closed campus and sent students home for online learning, Smeltzer’s students also had to adapt the class to a webinar format.

Emma McDade ’21, a Leadership and Organizational Dynamics major with a minor in Human Resource Management, was initially frustrated that the in-person conference would no longer take place. Instead, she and her classmates learned how to use Zoom and created PowerPoints that could articulate their discussion points.

“It turned out to be a learning experience I was happy to have a hand in,” she says. “It taught me how to work with other students to put the program together, and helped us learn from real-world experience what trainings could be like.”

One of the biggest benefits of the digital transition was that it gave students a chance to experience the industry push for virtual trainings, Smeltzer says. “There is no doubt this change demanded more than I anticipated originally from the students, but they stepped up,” she says. “They stepped up even though they were still coping with this massive change academically.”

The HR professionals who attended the virtual conference were predominantly members of the York Society for Human Resource Management. Smeltzer also partnered with the Lancaster Society for Human Resource Management to provide the continuing education credits for these HR professionals. Many of the conference attendees were consultants, nonprofit HR directors and their staff, as well as other various HR positions for large organizations in Central PA.

“I believe there is still something irreplaceable about face-to-face events and plan on this being a face-to-face event in the future,” Smeltzer says. “However, this experience has shown me that regardless of the circumstances, we can adapt this learning opportunity for the students and still obtain the desired learning outcomes.”