At the Center of It All

From data to tech, entrepreneurship to professional development, Chambers centers are delivering on their missions.

◆ 10 minute read

At the Center of It All

In very different ways, four separate centers at the Chambers College keep their vision trained on the future and their priorities laser-focused on career success.

An office where job aspirations transform into offers? Check.

A place that helps students bring business ideas to life? Chambers has it covered.

A high-tech lab that reimagines hospitality and tourism? Let us introduce you.

A team using data to break down professional licensing barriers? Right this way, please.

One-on-one scores a 10 out of 10

Seventy-seven percent of Chambers undergraduates who had an internship while at WVU are placed in a job the day of graduation. For accounting majors, it’s 100%.

This past fall, the Chambers Center for Career Development took 237 students – including 100 honors first-year students – on job shadows and industry site visits with CCD business partners. In Spring 2022, the CCD partnered with faculty to pilot two new events designed to connect students with employers outside of a traditional career fair setting: the Accounting Professional Image Dinner and Management Information Systems Career and Industry Day, both hits with students, employers and alumni.

Photo of student-employer interaction at CCD event

The CCD helps students match skills and aspirations with career paths, connecting them with internship and employment opportunities through programming, networking and personalized coaching. The Center has plenty of dazzling numbers like the ones above – yet all Director Sarah Glenn and Assistant Director Ashley Lesnick seem to want to talk about is students.

Take junior finance student Olivia Suazo.

“When I was interviewing for my internship sophomore year,” Suazo said, “I came to Sarah and said, ‘I need help.’ I’d never done an interview before.

“Sarah sat with me for an hour three days in a row. She went over all the details, gave me feedback and made me more confident.”

Glenn connected Suazo with Aaron Winderbaum, an alumnus who worked at JPMorgan and helped Suazo navigate the final round of interviews to land the internship.

Suazo said, “Aaron has given me great career and life advice. He’s always putting me in touch with the right people and checking in.”

Last year, Suazo joined the CCD’s team of peer career coaches – “coming full circle,” Glenn said.

For Lesnick’s part, she’s “so proud of alumna Daija Jackson. I worked with Daija on access to internships, and we went through so much together.”

Jackson said that although she thought of herself as “confident and outspoken,” when it came to interviews, she’d “freeze and shut down.”

Practice with Lesnick helped Jackson cross the finish line, and she went straight from WVU to Merkle, where she coordinates digital marketing.

“Ashley went that extra mile to help me succeed – and not just succeed but stay positive during a job search that really was a journey,” Jackson remembered.

Lesnick said “taking a student from start to finish is one of the things that we love so much in our role – having those impacts, supporting students as they go out there, interview, figure out what they want.

“There were times Daija came in saying, ‘I don’t know if I can do it.’ That’s when I’d say, ‘We’ve got this.’

“No matter who comes in here, what their goals are or if they have a goal, we establish a personalized plan. That’s what has revolutionized what we’ve been doing and how we’ve been able to keep pushing our placement numbers. It’s that individualization of every student, each with a different story and career path. Our philosophy is about meeting them where they are.”

It’s ‘go time’ for startups

The Encova Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship wants to change the entrepreneurship narrative for all of West Virginia by helping one innovator after another shape their own story.

Many of those stories begin at Encova’s annual business plan competitions, where high school students, college students and the community at large receive business coaching, prototyping support, market research and access to maker labs across the state while aiming to make it to the final round, when prospective businesses pitch their ideas to judges and potential investors in showdowns reminiscent of Shark Tank.

The process culminates in cash awards that help launch or grow businesses, with $123,000 awarded in last year’s competition to finalists including innovation and entrepreneurship major Avalon Green, who’s launching a women’s golf apparel line with the seed money she won.

In 2023, the competitions are happening in April as part of Bridging Innovation Week, hosted by the West Virginia Entrepreneurship Ecosystem, a statewide resource network for entrepreneurs that Tara St. Clair, Encova’s program director, helped launch. Bridging Innovation Week offers programming that promotes and fosters startups across West Virginia, supporting entrepreneurial students and community members and creating new opportunities for small businesses.

Photo of Tara St. Clair speaking to an audience

St. Clair said she believes “K-12 is the place to start infusing the entrepreneurial mindset – but that’s not to say I think everyone should be an entrepreneur. I believe we need to create a generation of problem solvers.

“Our goal is to become a startup state. We want to create pipelines and support resources for K-12 students whether they go on to higher education or not. The Encova Center is responsible for outreach under our land-grant mission, and we work with everyone across the Mountain State.”

That across-the-board commitment is what led the Encova Center to partner with Marshall University, the EdVenture Group and WVU’s Morris L. Hayhurst LaunchLab to work on creating a career and technical education entrepreneurship curriculum for the West Virginia Department of Education.

St. Clair said, “What the other partners and I have found is that entrepreneurship is not like traditional education. Evaluation looks different in an entrepreneurship classroom – we want to create a safe, hands-on environment for students to try and fail. We use prototypes and teach about developing a minimum viable product before launching a full-scale business, and students are trying things: interviewing customers, gaining valuable feedback.

“We have the momentum,” she affirmed. “When we collaborate, we all win.”

When we collaborate, we all win.

- Tara St. Clair


Fast-forward to the future

In the team environment of Associate Professor Ajay Aluri’s Hospitality Innovation and Technology Lab, students join forces to create advanced – often ultra-advanced – technology solutions for hospitality and tourism businesses.

According to Aluri, HIT Lab is “not just preparing students for the current industry, but for the future of the industry.”

It’s a place to brainstorm, develop and test the possibilities of emerging technologies like Nao, a robot concierge who recognizes guests and offers personalized deals.

Photo of Ajay Aluri with Nao, the HIT Lab's robot concierge

Aluri said HIT Lab’s trajectory has been aimed sky-high since inception. “We launched HIT Lab in 2018, and right away in 2019, one of our first projects began winning awards: the Demo Day Expo Award, the Best in Moving West Virginia Forward Award.

“For that, with two computer science students, we created an Internet of Sound kiosk that allowed you to transfer data to your phone using sound waves – no Wi-Fi or other network needed.

“I’d given these students the idea and said, ‘Guys, can we make this happen?’ They took the concept and created an entire code to transfer that data using audio. It was just an idea, but they executed it, and it had a huge ‘wow!’ factor.”

The current HIT Lab student team is divided into groups that each use a different technology platform to tackle a challenge. Last semester, the groups finalized solutions; and this spring, they’ll present those at a showcase and a rapid prototyping competition.

“Not only are the groups innovating on the technology side, but we’re coming up with strategies on target markets, projected growth – being very purposeful,” Aluri said. “The students will present their ideas to a client, and if the client is interested, we’ll come back and solve the problem as a team.”

One group is developing an app to handle timeclock tracking for a small business. Another is working on a housekeeping drone for hotels. A third group is investigating Nao’s potential, while a fourth focuses on holding conferences in the metaverse.

Student Noah Stalnaker’s group uses augmented reality to enhance the consistency and trainee engagement of hospitality training programs.

Photo of Noah Stalnaker

“I’m from Lewis County, West Virginia,” Stalnaker said, “and last summer when I changed my major from marketing to hospitality and tourism management, I thought, ‘I can’t stay in West Virginia, there’s not a big market here.’

“And then I realized tourism is our No. 1 economy driver. It’s tourism that brings in the bucks.

“HIT Lab teaches you, ‘How can we innovate that? How can we make things better for the lodging industry, so more people come to West Virginia, stay longer, spend more money here?’ I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned from HIT Lab in the real world.”

Stalnaker hopes to work somewhere like the Department of Tourism or the Mountaineer Country Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Once people from outside the state see our grassroots beauty, it’s hard to forget,” he said – even if they take their first test drive down West Virginia’s country roads within the metaverse.

A license for change

The Knee Center for the Study of Occupational Regulation is one of the newest additions to the Chambers family. Directed by Ed Timmons, service associate professor of economics, the Knee Center is funded by the Knee Family Foundation and other private supporters.

The Knee Center compiles state-level data on U.S. professional licensing requirements, enabling academics and legislators to evaluate whether occupational licensing laws are helping or hurting workers and consumers.

“We’re different from other centers in the regulatory space in a way that’s particularly aligned with WVU’s R1 mission,” said Alicia Plemmons, Knee Center research fellow and assistant professor of general business. “Like similar centers, we concentrate on op-eds and testimonies to legislatures, but we also go beyond to focus on the scholarly piece.”

Associate Director Alanna Wilson said the Knee Center’s team keeps the publicly searchable database of state licensing regulations updated as laws change, while continually adding new occupations.

Requests for information from academics, agencies or legislators are what usually prompt the Knee Center to add an occupation to the database.

Changing regulations, such as Idaho allowing pharmacists to prescribe medication, can also launch a new wave of research. So can current events like the Black Lives Matters protests, which generated interest in police licensing.

Approximately 22% of U.S. workers must achieve licensure, and there’s little argument that some occupations – doctors, lawyers – need licensing regulations.

But even barbers can face heavy investments of time and money to become licensed to perform their work – or perform it in a new state.

While the Knee Center never takes a political stance on regulations, relying instead on research data to present a nonpartisan perspective, Wilson mentioned licensure alternatives that protect consumers without limiting workers: “Market competition, registration, insurance, certification.”

She added, “What licensing does in its purest form is protect consumers. However, if you attempt to practice a licensed profession and collect money from that without government licensure, repercussions can occur and, in extreme cases, an arrest can be made. That’s what happened to the roofer from Texas who was in the news last fall for getting arrested attempting to provide emergency services in Florida after Hurricane Ian.

“These situations make you question what the licensing is doing – protecting consumers or taking away an opportunity? That’s where our data comes in.”

The Knee Center is interested not only in the consumer protection side, but also in how licensing requirements burden groups like veterans, military spouses or formerly incarcerated people.

And the Knee Center is aware that that any low-income worker will likely struggle with the cost of licensure. Although West Virginia has the second lowest annual income nationally, Timmons observed that the state “is in the top 10 in terms of low-income occupations that we license.”

Wilson said, “We’re always thinking broadly about the effect these regulations have on the economy, but we also know people’s lives are affected. It’s not theoretical ideas. It’s families being able to eat. In the current financial climate, helping people achieve stability is more important than ever for the Knee Center.”