Preparing HBCU Students for a Competitive Workforce

Cognosante’s University Engagement program provides students with meaningful work experiences to prepare for successful careers in the GovCon industry. The program consists of two unique partnerships: an alliance with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs) and a separate alliance with women’s colleges.

During February and March, Ebony Holmes, Sr. Director of Human Resources, shares her perspectives on how these programs remove barriers and offer growth opportunities to early career professionals.

Tell me about the Cognosante HCBU Partner Alliance. What inspired its creation?

Cognosante has had a well-established internship program since 2018 that remains open to eligible students from all institutions of higher learning. The murder of George Floyd in summer 2020 prompted our deeper reflection on how we could expand the program to infuse greater access and equity for students of color. The data tells us that Black students face a range of obstacles in accessing professional opportunities, and our program was created to focus on ways to remove them. We wanted to do something that was not just a response to that moment in time but would have a lasting impact, and what better way through education.

How does the HCBU Partner Alliance differ from more traditional internship programs?

Traditional internship programs are typically designed by the employer – heavily influenced by Human Resources and business stakeholders. The HBCU Partner Alliance is unique in that it was developed in partnership between Cognosante and our founding partner universities, reflecting our shared vision for students’ personal and professional growth. We collaborate with department Chairs and Deans to ensure the hands-on experience is in line with their current classroom curriculum in addition to their career goals.

Many corporate internship programs offer a 10-week summer opportunity. The HBCU Partner Alliance differs in that it also offers a paid, semester-long Fall Scholars program that provides college credit for an immersive experience in a wide range of corporate functional roles; and Cognosante on Campus, a year-round series of on-campus and virtual opportunities aimed at developing the invaluable leadership and soft skills necessary for career success.

Tell us about the process for choosing partner schools.

Everything about the HBCU Partner Alliance is intentional. We looked at HBCUs in our neighboring states which historically hadn’t received large endowments as a start to building a partnership. It was very important that we approach regionally impactful versus nationally known schools, such as Elizabeth City State University, Delaware State University, North Carolina Central University and Bowie State University. As a technology company, it was also critical that we partner with schools whose significant course offerings were designed to prepare students for work in the STEM field.

What else is unique about the program?

The Fall Scholar program offers several unique benefits:

  • Paid Housing: The Fall Scholar program is only offered to students currently enrolled at one of partner schools. Once selected into the program, students receive paid, on campus housing at a local university, which gives them an opportunity to experience college life outside of the HBCU setting.
  • Exposure to Corporate Environment: They commute to our corporate headquarters, where they interact with all levels of employees including our executive leadership team.
  • Mentoring: Students are also given access to a mentor at the start of the program. To ensure the success of the mentorship, mentors who are also in leadership positions are provided training and are supported through the semester.
  • Professional Development Across Settings: There are unique events planned outside the office to give students experience with professional interactions in a variety of settings. The entire experience is tailored to give students purposeful exposure both professionally and socially to ensure they’re well equipped to confidently step into any position upon graduation.

How has this program benefited the business?

Entry-level professionals offer many benefits to the business, including cost optimization, career development, and relationship development. This program has resulted in a strong pipeline of high-caliber candidates that supplement our traditional recruiting methods.

Diverse teams also enhance profitability. A six-year study conducted by McKinsey found that more ethnically and culturally diverse businesses are as much as 36% more profitable than the least diverse companies.

The program is now entering its third year but has already produced significant results. Tell us about that.

The HBCU Alliance program has been transformative for its participants. In 2021, the program’s first year, HBCU participants comprised 30% of Cognosante’s summer or fall interns. Sixty-five percent of participants immediately secured full-time jobs upon completion of the program, with 75% of those working and thriving at Cognosante. Most importantly, participants begin the program as college students and leave as confident professionals with marketable skills. They have experienced student and professional life in a new place, learned how to be successful in a corporate environment, and met lifelong colleagues and mentors.


Learn more about how we’re preparing students for successful careers in the GovCon industry.



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