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Ravell Call, Deseret News
People gather following a grand opening celebration for Education at Work’s new offices in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Student debt plagues college graduates throughout the U.S., with Americans owing more than $1.3 trillion in student loans at the end of June 2017, according to the Pew Research Center.

To help combat debt among its students, the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business is joining with nonprofit group Education at Work to create part-time jobs for students supporting Microsoft.

The partnership celebrated the opening of its new location Tuesday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony inside the David Eccles School of Business.

“It’s an opportunity to work with world-class organizations and develop professional skills,” Al Landon, assistant dean of corporate outreach for the David Eccles School of Business, said during the ceremony.

Students hone their job skills by providing chat-based customer support for Microsoft. They build communication, problem-solving, critical thinking and organizational skills, preparing them to transition into their careers after college, said Larry Lutz, president of Education at Work.

The program creates a pipeline between students and employers, university officials said, and Microsoft benefits as well.

Jered Aasheim, partner group engineering manager for the tech company, said the program has given Microsoft a solution for some of its needs.

Aasheim said he wants to recruit the “brightest young minds” to offer support to Microsoft's customers.

Bonnie Wright, a student at the Eccles School of Business, said the job has taught her how to communicate better and overcome problems.

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"I've made great friends," she said. "And I've enjoyed a really wonderful work experience overall."

In addition to wages, students can earn $5,250 per year in tax-free tuition help. Now, 80 students work in the program. But by the end of the year, the partnership hopes to have created 400 jobs for U. students, according to Education at Work.

Started in 2012 by Convergys CEO Dave Dougherty, Education at Work has placed 2,000-plus students into positions and helped them receive more than $3 million in tuition assistance, according to the nonprofit's website.