College Students Gain Professional Experience Before Graduation

January 25, 2023

Strategic Innovations (SI), a part of Toyota Financial Services (TFS), is always searching for their next project and an innovative partner to collaborate with. Usually, SI looks externally to find partners, but in the case of The University of Texas Dallas (UTD), their next partner was close by. UTD had an established relationship with Toyota Motor North America (TMNA) and was searching for a corporate partner. SI values creative and forward-thinking partnerships and UTD’s team shared those same goals. The match was made. 

UTDesign Capstone

The UTDesign Capstone program at UTD was reimagined by Dean, Mark Spong. When he arrived from another university, he began revamping the project to give undergraduate seniors the chance to gain real world experiences with help from a UTD advisor and a mentor from a corporate partner. Rodney Wetterskog, Assistant Dean, Corporate Relations, UTD, gave us insight into the program's origins.  "Dr. Mark Spong wanted to follow in the footsteps of other universities. He wanted to do a corporate-sponsored capstone program with undergraduate seniors to get them ready for real-world use cases." UTD wanted their students to learn from a real company with real problems that need to be solved. The students would gain valuable experience from the project that would benefit them in their first roles post-graduation.  

"The program brings tremendous value to our students because it could open doors for job opportunities. Internships can be difficult to come by. These projects are a smaller way of filling that gap in the student's experience. Working with Toyota also gives the students a new perspective on the skills they are learning, as well as how companies might mold them when they get a job." - Christi Nielsen, Assistant Professor of Instruction, UTD  

SI’s Partnership Search

When SI began looking for a new partnership, they had a checklist of what that partner should be and what they should bring to the table. It was important that their partner be in the Dallas area where Toyota is headquartered to support the local economy. They wanted a partner who offered more than a one-dimensional opportunity where the partnership could expand in the future. Finally, the partner had to be a working and productive member of the team. UTD checked all the boxes. 

Stacey Miller, National Manager, Strategic Innovation, shared how there could be growth in other areas of the partnership. "We think our relationship works because the staff and faculty have been great to work with during the program. Not only that, but the diversity of disciplines that the UTDesign Capstone program provides can allow TFS to work together with students in other areas."   

Working with Students

After the completion of the first semester, both sides looked at what they learned. SI benefited from working with a younger generation who represented Toyota’s future customers. Learning how their generation thinks and what they look for in a product was insightful for the direction future projects should be directed. The students’ generation looks for more engagement in their technology than generations before.  

SI was also able to pull projects from a list of backlogged ideas for the students to move forward with. Utilizing student expertise not only freed up resources for SI but also allowed the UTD students to work on real projects that could one day become part of SI. Students provided a complete and robust process that allowed SI to decide if the project was worthwhile to explore and if it could work in an existing program. The Capstone students not only finished their assignments but built upon what was asked of them. In several cases, students created new projects all together.  

"The program allowed us to build a relationship with UTD. Partnering together gives the students an educational experience for future development, a way to connect with students to learn from their new viewpoints, and technical expertise applying to new concept without pulling company resources." – Philip Loveridge, Consultant, Strategic Innovation  

Student Feedback

Students were drawn to work with SI initially because they recognized the brand. Once the program began, the overwhelming feedback was the sense of purpose they felt working with Toyota. Out of all the capstone programs to choose from, Toyota was one of the only businesses where the student’s projects would be utilized within the company. This fully provided students with their desire to gain real world experiences before graduation. 

“By contributing to this program, I was able to apply classroom knowledge to my workforce experience. Partnering with the Toyota Financial Services-Strategic Innovation team expanded my soft skills and built my professional network,” said Veronica Chittora. 

Continued Partnership

The partnership between UTD and SI continues. Both parties see a benefit to their continued collaboration. "When starting this program last semester, we had many undergraduate teams that picked Toyota as their 1st choice to work with during the project. The reason why is because Toyota nurtures and invests in the students. That is tremendous value. Huge! The overall experience with Toyota Financial Services - Strategic Innovation is five stars due to their engagement." - Rodney Wetterskog, Assistant Dean, Corporate Relations, University of Texas at Dallas.  

This partnership has benefited SI with students bringing innovative ideas with real, actionable results. In return, SI provided fundamental interactions for the senior undergraduates before entering the workforce.   

“We could not have asked for a better university partnership than with the UTDesign Capstone. With the first semester at the end of completion, our SI team could see other potential opportunities for us to team up again,” Stacey Miller, National Manager, Strategic Innovation shared.  

This partnership provided an experience for both sides that exceeded expectations. Currently, the plan is a long-term relationship that will continue to benefit SI and UTD moving forward.  

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