Real-world learning for Winona State’s College of Business

The world of business is always changing. That’s why Winona State University’s College of Business, AACSB accredited for its high-quality business education, has been striving to create the next generation of business leaders.

To teach and prepare such leaders, Dr. Hamid Akbari, dean of the College of Business, and faculty members have adopted a new strategic vision for becoming a distinct college of business for innovative and engaged teaching and learning – as captured by the college’s new brand tagline CREATE YOUR MORE. Part of that vision includes pairing students with Winona State’s external business partners to give students the edge more and more employers are looking for — actual business experience.

In order to build these experiences, Winona State is calling on its supporters and friends to create the College of Business Engaged Learning Endowment. The goal: to give students, faculty, alumni and businesses real-life opportunities to collaborate with and benefit from one another.

“In a nutshell, the endowment will provide opportunities to explore innovative, mutually beneficial ways to connect businesses to students through experience,” Director of Development Debbie Block said. “Supplementing academic experience with real-world application allows students to hone critical thinking, problem solving and communication skills; the skills employers say need strengthening.

”Having a substantial endowed fund is an absolute necessity in order to offer the types of engaged learning experiences students and businesses of today are looking for,” Akbari said. “And through such experiences, we have the opportunity to not only make a significant impact on our students, but on our campus, in our community and across the globe.”

The fact is, making the leap between the classroom and the workplace can be a complicated transition. According to Winona State Associate Professor in Business Administration/Human Resources Jana Craft, more and more employers are looking for candidates with real-world experience on top of their academic qualifications.

“Classroom learning doesn’t cut it anymore,” she said. “It’s almost a necessity now to include opportunities outside the classroom that engage with the community.”

Not to mention it’s a selling point for the University itself, according to Block.

“When it comes to selecting a college, students have many choices. The WSU College of Business’s strategic approach of integrating classroom and real-world experience will differentiate our graduates, better preparing them for success,” she said. “Innovative and engaged teaching and learning sets our University and our students apart.”

On top of all that, students love what they get out of engaged learning opportunities.

“I think engaged learning is important because the classroom is simply not enough,” Anacorina Velasco ’16 said.

Over the past few years, she said, she’s seen the Winona State College of Business ramp up in a major way. She’s had several opportunities to connect the skills she’s learned in class to real-world situations and organizations. She’s proud to say she’s a graduate of the program, and of what she continues to accomplish.

“I think that engaged learning is going to help me develop who I’m going to be in the next five, 10 years of my life,” she said.

As of November, during the initial fundraising phase, the generosity of donors had put the endowment $365,000 closer to its $1 million goal. Among those donors, several business and other partners have climbed aboard for the chance to participate. The Winona National Bank Financial Markets Lab, the Strauss Center for Sales Excellence and the Federated Insurance Role Play Room — all located in the new College of Business Engagement Center in Somsen Hall — have all been named for partners committed to the project.

“Ensuring that WSU has the resources to continue to grow by attracting and retaining the best students available is so vitally important to the long term health of our region,” Jack Richter, President and CEO of Winona National Bank, said. “So if WSU and the College of Business are doing well, I know that our bank will be doing well too.”

Other partners — like Winona State University Foundation Board of Trustees member Bob Strauss and his wife Mary Jo — are supporting the project because they believe there needs to be more communication and exchange between the academic world and the business world. The Strauss Center for Sales Excellence at the College of Business Engagement Center is a celebration of both their commitment to Winona State and Bob’s own 40-year career at Fastenal, where he served as vice president of business development.

“Bob’s passion for sharing the knowledge and expertise he gained during his career with the students at WSU is something we wanted to share,” Mary Jo said.

Ultimately, the Strausses feel that the endowment is a project that shares the goal of most businesses: communicating and building relationships. When students can start growing their networks while they’re still students, there’s no telling how far they’ll go.

For more information on how you can connect students to the workplace and grow the next generation of business leaders, visit

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Sarah Stockwell

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