This article was contributed by Jenny Callison, freelance writer.
Preparing undergraduate students to launch their careers should involve more than just showing them how to assemble a resumé, pen a cover letter, and develop a firm handshake. For two decades, the Cameron School of Business has demonstrated this belief by offering its students a resource to help them assess themselves and their career possibilities, set goals and develop strategies to pursue those goals.
That distinctive resource is the all-volunteer Cameron Executive Network, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and, more importantly, toasts the success of thousands of CEN alumni.
“We help a person transition from being a student into being an employee, and help them take ownership of their career development,” says Kim Nelson, who has been one of CEN’s roughly 260 mentors for more than 7 years. Recently she was appointed the network’s co-director, the first female to hold the post.
Nelson, who is retired from a career in the pharmaceutical industry, is active in Wilmington’s nonprofit community and has also been a mentor for students in UNCW’S College of Health and Human Services. She didn’t commit to her new responsibility lightly.
“I would not have taken the co-director position and given up more of my time if I didn’t think the Cameron Executive Network experience was life-changing for these young people,” she says.
Nelson’s counterpart co-director is Allen Patrick, an adjunct marketing instructor at the Cameron School. Over his more than a decade of mentoring experience, he’s developed a style of working with students.
“When you mentor a student, you’re matched with them until graduation,” he says, adding that the pair are expected to meet at least two times each month for an hour or two, but the mentor and mentee set up their own schedule and their own way of working together.
“Your priorities become what the student needs,” Patrick says. “You ask them what’s on their mind; what you can help them with. There are the standard tools of resume, cover letter and interviewing skills, but what else? What about internships – do they have anything planned?
“You start getting them focused and keep them on track to achieve what they have agreed upon to do.”
Just as CSB students must apply to participate in the network, prospective mentors must meet certain qualifications and be vetted by the CEN’s advisory council. Both Patrick and Nelson serve on the council.
Each prospect is interviewed by a member of the council, who then makes a recommendation to the council. Patrick says almost all of those interviewed are accepted as mentors, provided they pass a background check. New mentors go through an orientation process.
Both Nelson and Patrick say that they’ve seen the pool of mentors as well as students become more diverse over the past decade or so.
“We’ve definitely seen more women getting involved as mentors over the years,” Nelson says. “In addition, more younger people are learning they have something to contribute.”
The CEN rule of thumb is that a potential mentor should have had “substantial” senior executive experience over a “significant” period of time and be able to communicate that experience in a way that’s helpful to undergraduates. Those interested in mentoring should have successfully mentored business colleagues. Equally important is the desire to mentor students and commit to that effort. Prospective mentors should be full-time or part-time residents of Southeastern North Carolina.
Patrick agrees that the Cameron Executive Network is diversifying its pool of mentors, including attracting younger executives.
“We’ve been very blessed with the geographic location of Wilmington, because of the people who have decided to relocate here for the quality of life, or for retiring,” Patrick says. “We’re getting not only retirees but people who are semi-retired or even active in their careers.”
Nelson and Patrick plan to enhance the preparation of and ongoing communication among their mentors, to make their work with students as effective as possible.
At the start of each semester, junior and senior business majors who enroll in the program are matched with the mentor who will work with them until they graduate. Some mentors gravitate toward a particular kind of student.
“I choose students who are first-generation college students because I am one,” Nelson says. “I didn’t have the privilege that some other people had with a lot of connections. I was fortunate in that my father said, ‘You need to study really hard; we can’t afford to give you very much. You need to earn that spot.’ He was a mentor in a life way.”
Nelson believes it’s important to help students understand that their first job out of college is not necessarily their destiny.
“If they know how to assess and think about their career, they can think about what is the next thing,” she explains. “Some students are stopped by sheer fear and panic that they will make a wrong decision. They think it’s permanent, but they can learn from their decisions and move on. I truly believe that young people who participate in the CEN will do far better than those who don’t.”
Patrick, who built a 35-year career in international business with Ford Motor Company, likes to work with international students in the CSB’s Trans-Atlantic Business School Alliance (TABSA) program. He finds them engaging because they’ve taken the risk to spend two years studying in another country, they speak more than one language, and they are highly curious about the world around them.
“It’s amazing how much we as mentors enjoy working with the students,” Patrick says. “They often have a joie de vivre which is infectious. It is rewarding when I see a student is pleased with the results of the mentorship, who says, ‘Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.’ It keeps us mentors motivated.”
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