PLANNING AHEAD: Adriana I. Dawson, director of employer outreach and engagement at Roger Williams University, says students who have a level of expertise in a particular area and have it complemented with abilities like critical thinking have a competitive edge in the job market.
By Rhonda J. Miller PBN Staff Writer
Adriana Dawson stepped in to deepen the connection between Rhode Island’s educational and business communities on March 31 through a newly created position at Roger Williams University. She will work with companies across the state from the university’s Bristol campus, as well as from a Providence office.
The position was created to offer students more opportunities for workplace experience that will give them an edge in the job market, as well as to encourage innovative collaborations with industry, said Peter Wilbur, RWU vice president for university outreach and engagement, who is Dawson’s supervisor.
PBN: How did you make the connection with Roger Williams University after the SBDC offices at Johnson & Wales were closed at the end of last year?
DAWSON: I have been a very active board member of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University for about six years. The university’s head of outreach and engagement, Peter Wilbur, is on that board. We have been network partners for years and would often attend the same events. He knew of my previous work with SBDC connecting companies to the classroom to create experiential-learning opportunities for Johnson & Wales students, and to provide services for small businesses. When he learned about the transition of the SBDC, the conversation began, because he had plans to expand his division to generate more experiential-learning opportunities for students.
PBN: What is your specific mission within that department?
DAWSON: My role is to develop strategic employer and industry relationships and help build the Roger Williams University brand. My mission is to create sustainable partnerships that are valuable for all stakeholders, and ultimately, to create employment opportunities for our students.
PBN: How similar or different is this new job from your work with SBDC?
DAWSON: It’s quite similar, although I’m no longer providing direct business counseling to clients. In my capacity as the former state director, I was a steward of the SBDC and Johnson & Wales, and the SBDC was a pipeline into the classroom. Businesses could get some additional help if they were receptive to allowing students to work alongside the SBDC on projects for the company. In my new position at Roger Williams, I no longer have the responsibility for directly helping companies on projects [such as] marketing plans. The similar parts are things like strategic planning and relationship building.
PBN: What have you seen as an example of transformation at RWU?
DAWSON: I see the creation of this new position as one sign of the transformation. I see it as a bold statement that Roger Williams University wants to be recognized as a business partner and is serious about being part of the economic-development conversation. We are educating talent that is going to be entering the workforce, as well as some people who are re-evaluating their career paths, obtaining additional degrees and coming in as midcareer professionals – so I see a focus on being viewed as an economic-development partner.
PBN: What does that mean for the students?
DAWSON: In order to do our students justice in the classroom, we need to keep our finger on the pulse of shifting trends, of innovative technologies and the needs of industry. I feel that I have an opportunity to engage my existing network that I’ve built over the course of my 12 years working with small business, to continue to stay plugged in and to translate those needs and that conversation back to the university.
PBN: Many business executives have said that technical or direct job skills that are in demand are not everything Rhode Island needs to develop in its workforce – have you found that?
DAWSON: What business leaders really appreciate in recent graduates is the ability for that new employee to be nimble – to have the soft skills necessary to be valuable to the employer anywhere within their organization. Students who have a level of expertise in a particular area and have it complemented with abilities like critical thinking, strategic planning, communication and presentation skills have a competitive edge in the job market.
PBN: Do you see a lot of competition from other colleges and universities in the state for the kind of connections you want to make and the kind of internships and work experiences you want to create for Roger Williams students?
DAWSON: No, I don’t see it as competition. I think the space, the activities and the conversations are so extensive that there’s room for all of the institutions. Each one has its own particular areas of focus, with both opportunities and challenges. Some have more levels of bureaucracy to go through before they’re able to commit to activities, whereas I’m finding here at Roger Williams, they recognize that to be a true partner to the business community, we need to operate at the speed at which business operates. •
Adriana I. Dawson
POSITION: Director of employer outreach and engagement at Roger Williams University
BACKGROUND: Dawson is a native Rhode Islander, raised in Pawtucket. She began working with the R.I. Small Business Development Center as assistant director in 2002, when it was located at Bryant University. She was appointed state director of the SBDC in May 2012, a position she held until the SBA contract at Johnson & Wales ended in December 2013, when it was relocated to the University of Rhode Island.
EDUCATION: Bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Northeastern University, 1998; master’s degree in management and organizational communication from Emerson College, 2000
FIRST JOB: Worked at Pontiac Weaving, a Cumberland manufacturer, during the summers as a teenager