By: Diane Stirling

(315) 443-8975

What’s a non-profit organization with a lot of aging computer equipment, a smattering of information technology needs, and a limited budget for consulting and infrastructure to do about getting its computer hardware and software systems up to speed?

If you’re Francis House of Syracuse, you seek out the expertise at the School of Information Studies (iSchool) and the school’s Center for Convergence and Emerging Network Technology (CCENT), where students are just hoping to find real-world situations where their skills and knowledge can make a real difference.

The latest connection between an organization having significant information technology needs and students having significant information technology expertise is one that has worked out well from many angles since Francis House asked for the help of iSchool students last summer.  With the help of an innovative student team, Francis House has, in a short time, gone from being technologically disadvantaged to being empowered with a much more efficient IT plan to help carry out its mission. And for the organization and the four students involved in the assessment team, the professional consulting engagement and combination of interests and efforts provided great work experience while receiving excellent recognition, earning a Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement and Scholarship from Syracuse University.

The four-student CCENT team of Jose Bejar, Tejas Mapuskar, Ramear Faris, and Brittany Jones, guided by Professor of Practice and CCENT advisor Bahram Attaie, was announced as a recipient of one of the Chancellor’s awards recently.

The team’s project work took place last summer, when students began to meet with Francis House’s nine-member administrative staff to assess the organization’s IT status, inventory existing hardware and software, and determine needs and optimal computerization goals. Over several trips there to meet with staff, students identified the issues of aging hardware, operating systems that would no longer be supported by Microsoft, difficulty managing server configurations, lack of remote access to fundraising software, poorly connected wireless access points, incompatible file formats, and lack of office standardization. With that assessment, and cognizant of the organization’s financial limitations, the students constructed an IT plan and delivered their recommendations to the group’s administration and board. As an organization sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neuman Communities, Francis house relies entirely on donations to carry out its mission, which is to provide a home and extended family and care services to those with terminal illnesses. Consequently, the recommendations had to be realistic, affordable, and easy to undertake.

Well-Received Efforts

The students’ plan was extremely well received by the Francis House administration and Board, and the work of the students received high praise. However, it wasn’t just the computer savvy of the students that won them acclaim, according to Steve Block, assistant dean for administration at the iSchool, who serves on the board of Francis House. The respectful manner and professional demeanor of the students as they carried out their efforts was very noteworthy as well, he said.

“Nancy Light, the executive director, and Beth Hoey, advancement director, were so complimentary about the students and the way they behaved in the environment,” Block noted. “The students knew where they were, what the mission was, and they were very respectful. The staff was very impressed with their sensitivity to the Francis House environment and their willingness to help staff members on the fly,” he said.

The organization’s leadership echoed that statement. “We feel very fortunate to have worked with the student team from the School of Information Studies,” said Light, who explained how the students filled a truly pressing need. “The students were a pleasure to work with and conducted themselves in a very professional manner in communicating with staff members. They were very respectful of our ministry in their interactions with volunteers, residents and family members,” she said. The consulting engagement, complete with hardware and operating systems inventory, software inventory, Wi-Fi connectivity assessment and recommendations for upgrades to make Francis House more efficient, she said “was invaluable, and their recommendations allowed us to prioritize our information systems needs and establish a working plan for the upgrades and changes necessary to make good decisions going forward.”

Experience, And More

Faculty mentor Attaie noted that while the students gained valuable professional experience as they had hoped, they came away with something more by working with this client. “As a result of the onsite visits the students were deeply affected by the care provided by Francis House to its residents and they became even more motivated to do their best. The students gained invaluable real world IT experience, but their take-away was even greater, as Francis House made a profound, lifelong impression on them.”

Francis House staff found the help of the students of such value the organization is hoping to tap the skill sets of more students again this year, according to Block. He said that now that the organization’s systems have been streamlined, coordinated, and made more efficient, Francis House is looking to automate some of its administrative functions, such as remote access to computerized referral forms.

The Chancellor’s Award for Public Engagement and Scholarship recognizes the committed students at Syracuse University who exemplify the goal of public engagement and scholarship that simultaneously advances knowledge and meets real-world needs. The award is designed to acknowledge individual students, groups of students, residence halls and floors, student organizations, and academic projects or classes “that invest themselves in and contribute to the public good.”