The staff at Universities at Shady Grove sometimes refer to the center as “the best kept secret in Montgomery County.” Now for the first time, USG is implementing a strategic plan that will reimagine its role in fostering career readiness and workforce development for county students.
Universities at Shady Grove is a regional higher education center with a campus located in North Potomac and partnerships with nine public Maryland universities. Around two-thirds of Shady Grove students are undergraduates who have already received at least 60 credits, often from Montgomery College, according to communications director Steve Simon.
Following the introduction of USG’s new strategic plan—nicknamed USG 2.0—students are already sensing the shift in campus atmosphere and reacting with excitement. Upneet Atwal attended University of Maryland at Shady Grove’s campus from 2016 to 2018 and recently returned to USG to serve as a strategic projects coordinator in the executive director’s office.
Atwal said when he attended the campus as a student, he remembers his program being “isolated” and “very siloed in its culture.” Since his return last September, he said he’s seen a huge shift in the campus culture and an emphasis on helping students position themselves to enter the workforce as well-rounded, confident community members.
“Our whole business model revolves around creating pathways for students to achieve an education and settle into a great career. It’s that simple,” Atwal said. “There are so many students who leave high school and have no idea what their next step should be. That’s where we come in.”
When students submit their application to one of the nine USG partner universities, they can indicate USG as their preferred campus location. Once enrolled, their professors and curriculum are supplied by their chosen university, but the courses are hosted at USG’s campus where class sizes are smaller and more resources are available, resulting in a more personalized and cost-effective degree program, according to Simon.
Since USG is not a university itself, it is not responsible for making decisions about enrollment or graduation. “It’s our university partners’ job to give students their degrees,” Simon said. “We’re the support network that gives them the right environment for their learning.”
When USG Executive Director Anne Khademian was onboarded as executive director in October 2020, she said one of the top expectations from state officials was that USG needed to develop a strategic plan. “We’d been around for 20 years and never had one,” she said. Her resulting vision—called USG 2.0—is a complete reimagining of the center’s priorities.
“This is a huge culture shift—it’s massive,” said Khademian. “Our vision comes down to a promise that we hold ourselves accountable for our students’ employment success. We want them to be able build meaningful careers related to their aspirations while enjoying a sustainable wage. But they can’t do that unless we give them a framework that genuinely integrates their academic experience with their goals.”
To further integrate USG’s new focus, the center recently partnered with Montgomery College and Montgomery County Public Schools to develop nine shared career readiness competencies.
The initiative, called Hire U, tracks students’ progress in developing the competencies via a digital app, according to chief student affairs officer Robyn Dinicola. The core competencies include professionalism, equity and inclusion, critical thinking and personal well-being.
After downloading the Hire U app, Dinicola said students take an assessment to see where they need to practice the nine skillsets. The app then creates a competency portfolio that tracks their progress in each of the nine areas of focus so that by the end of their two years with USG, they can take the competency portfolio to employers along with their academic transcript.
“When students attend an event at USG that has to do with one of the nine skillsets, they can scan a QR code when they check in so the app knows they’re practicing that skillset,” Dinicola said. “That way they can see how their progress for each milestone is going. There’s a tangible outcome.”
She added that USG’s career readiness team has already reorganized itself to better reflect these competencies, and additional employer engagement staff are being hired to help support the work.
The center’s entire student services department is being retooled to fit the new focus on career readiness, Khademian said. All degree programs are mapped out into four sectors, called hubs: life science and health, business enterprise, public service and STEM—science, technology, engineering and math. Within each hub, academic partners and employers are intentionally engaged to connect students with career development opportunities in their areas of interest.
“The hubs build a true sense of shared responsibility,” Khademian said. “They allow us to focus on data mapping to identify together where the opportunities, gaps and needs are so that we can serve our students more effectively.”
She said the hubs are still in the very early stages of being rolled out, with the STEM hub being used as a pilot.
“At the core of our promise is the problem we’re trying to solve,” she said. “We’ve got to serve the student of today and tomorrow—a much more fluid student who’s not necessarily going to go live on a campus for four years. We have to think more holistically about the student experience. We can’t keep trying to fit them into these old models.”
In alliance with one of the nine core competencies, USG hired its first chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, Jeffrey Ash, in November 2022. Ash is now in the process of onboarding a team of DEI specialists to help connect with the student body and ensure the campus fosters a climate of “self-awareness and cultural relevancy.”
“I cannot overstate how important it is for folks to know that the office is a place they can come to and be heard,” Ash said. “As we roll out this massive new plan, I’m hearing a lot of uncertainty and a bit of fatigue. The listening has been paramount in developing trust and making sure people feel supported.”
Khademian said she hopes that by January, Shady Grove will be able to approach state legislature with its new business model and ask to be recognized as a “community of innovation” deserving of more fiscal support.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to staff our new teams fully, and I’m hopeful the legislature will invest in our important work,” she said.