The joy in higher education is connecting talented young people with managers who are willing and even eager to mentor them. I was reminded today when I received an email from a VP of Finance at one of our nation’s largest grocery chains who complimented me on one of JU’s students currently working as a paid intern for the summer. The student’s name is Ellis and the mentor is Graham. Graham is a rare talent with financial savvy and excellent communication skills. Ellis is the raw talent employers want to see: Curious, energetic, willing to experiment, listen, and learn from others mistakes. It is an ideal match.
I asked Ellis what makes something really meaningful to learn in college? His answer was “When the information or tools I learned actually helped me to solve the problem or contribute to a solution” or “when I understand why a problem is so complex”. Graham added, “when our brightest interns like Ellis can follow the discussions, it means they are on the right track, they can become contributors”.
Here are questions I hear most often from parents of our business students: Does the knowledge or skill she is learning at JU add purpose or direction to her life? Will good intentioned people guide her in finding a “true” calling or life work? Is the business curriculum or coursework something that will help them be successful in the workplace or purely theoretical? Are the assignments and team projects just “busywork”? Does your college encourage and make internships possible? If the answers don’t make sense, you are buying an inferior product.
As Dean, I continue to teach every term. I want to stay relevant and closely connected with our students. I consistently challenge myself to find new methods of connection students with our alumni, like Ellis and Graham. These internship related activities make follow-up discussions and in-class assignments or tasks so much more interesting. Applying knowledge is a skill; it takes time and practice to develop. All of us make mistakes and get tired or hearing “no” or “do it again”. Most of us fear failure even though it is by failure that we learn the most meaningful lessons. The best schools provide a challenging but safe place to test out their analytical and persuasion skills. From our experience at JU with employers, the difference between today’s graduates they hire and the average 22 year-old is the graduate applies their knowledge to solve problems and knows what she doesn’t know. When the important data or facts are embedded into a complex problem its a huge challenge. Employers I spoke with make the search for talent analogous to finding the woman or man with the skills and enthusiasm to solve a quantitative word problem as opposed to a straight numerical computation.
That is why our MBA graduates are so much more valuable to employers than regular candidates. It is also the reason we graduate so many successful of Jacksonville’s Presidents and C-Level talent such as Mike Shad (Automotive Dealerships), Carole Poindexter (Watsco), Kathleen Brandt (CSX), Tom Peterson (LPS), Earnie Franklin (Incepture), Bob Brigham (Mayo), and Tony Park (Fidelity), Matt Kane (Greenshade Software) to name just a few.
The Davis College’s primary goal is building thoughtful, engaged leaders prepared for tomorrow’s challenges in local businesses, government, and international commerce. The main purpose of a business education is for students to gain knowledge and construct meaning from facts or figures, not just memorize the “right” answers (to regurgitate facts or repeat someone else’s interpretation). But ultimately the “talent” must connect to employers to find those challenges and opportunities. So our focus at JU is connecting these young people with the managers and companies who will mentor and train them.
First we must mold the raw talent like Ellis into a problem solving machine. The methods and practices in building problem solving skills will change with technology, but the willingness to analyze and tackle wicked problems is something we must practice continually….and we drill “adaptability” into our graduates.
Many students start college by dreaming big but are tripped up by natural barriers. These barriers include access to useful problem sets, internship opportunities, prior knowledge and experience. Many students run out of money or loan capacity. Others are academically dismissed for poor performance because they lacked the skills or role models in their darkest hours. The “going got tough and they quit” principle applies to many college students who ultimately drop out. Then we must prove our value to employers and demonstrate and emphasize with their struggle to find the best talent.
Why is it so difficult to make one’s education meaningful and worthwhile? It is hard to accumulate what a guy like Ellis is building during this summer internship. Ellis gains the problem solving skills and resilience it takes to be seen as a contributor by someone like Graham.
We have recently invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in instructional technology so our business faculty can use the best tools and techniques and free up class time for student questions and teamwork. We call it a hybrid platform or flipping the classroom. We are investing so our students can spend more meaningful time in class doing what they value and not simply listening to lectures. But without students like Ellis, with a thirst for knowledge, even the greatest technology or online program won’t make up for a student or instructors’ sloppiness or laziness. As an instructor, I talk about not cutting corners when exploring solutions to a problem, and being curious about the data, asking why with purpose.
Hearing Ellis talk and repeating stories from hundreds like him, make it all worthwhile for me. Our faculty’s commitment to experiential learning and the opportunity to gain knowledge about an industry, it’s customers, and the market forces is all the more inspiring when we hear it from our best and brightest 20 year-olds. It is helping us mold a great group of 2015 graduates.
When a great talent like Ellis meets a business leader and engages in a meaningful dialog , something magical happens for the manager too. Students such as Ellis now see the value of their knowledge and Graham helps his organization go from good to great with the benefit of this new talent. Ellis and Graham understand their mentoring relationship for what it is–a gift. Ellis now possesses the desire to withstand any necessary struggle to solve problems and meet new challenges at work increased dramatically through this summer internship. This metamorphosis for students like Ellis is why I love what I do. We can all be mentors to someone. You have knowledge, skills, and know-how, right? Pass it on.