By Anthony Langley
“I’ve always believed that when we meet new people we learn from their lives, and when we add that to our experiences, we move forward and become better,” says Rita Saleem, a senior studying in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Business.
In her final year at VCU, she signed up to for the CONNECT mentoring program (formerly Ram to Ram), where she was paired with a mentor in her field of study, human resources. The only thing she regrets about joining CONNECT is that she didn’t do it sooner.
The business school’s mentoring program provides a way for students to cultivate professional relationships with alumni and friends of the university before they enter the workplace. Students and their mentors connect in a variety of ways, including attending professional events, talking by phone and exchanging emails. Mentors provide valuable resume and interview critiques along with information to help students attain their career goals.
The program, started in 2010, operates through a partnership between the VCU Business Alumni Society and the school’s Office of Student and Alumni Engagement. The mentoring program is one of two ways that students and professionals can engage with each other in a one-on-one setting. The second program, EXPLORE, pairs students with volunteers for informational interviews, where students can research, through conversation, different career paths. Both CONNECT and EXPLORE have grown significantly in the past few years, as more students, like Saleem, recognize the value of connecting with alumni. This year, CONNECT had 105 mentors and 111 students participate.
“No matter how old you are, I think it’s good to have a mentor,” says Hamilton Bryan (B.S.’13/B), a customer service administrator for Porvair Filtration Group Ltd. in Ashland, Virginia.
Bryan enrolled in the School of Business as an adult after being in the workforce for many years. Though he was initially worried about the transition from professional to student, he credits the faculty at the school for removing any doubts he had.
“There’s really a concerted effort from everyone there to make sure that you succeed,” he says. “When I found out about [CONNECT], I thought this would be another opportunity to help someone else.”
Bryan, who’s in his second year as a CONNECT mentor, says he emphasizes to students the importance of setting goals and working toward them. Teaching students to think first and understand the action they’re about to take, instead of charging head in, makes all the difference in both life and their professional careers, he says.
The program is about providing support as students prepare to make their transition from school to career, he adds. “It shows students that there are people that are here for you, that you can come to, that have something to offer.”
Local consultant Nancie Wingo also serves as a mentor for CONNECT and says networking and making professional connections before entering the workplace is the key to opening up new doors for students. While not a VCU graduate, Wingo is among a growing number of local business professionals eager to support the business school and its students.
“I’m a huge supporter and fan of VCU, and I credit [VCU] for a lot of the positive things going on in Richmond,” Wingo says. “I jumped at the chance to be a mentor. It’s a great program for everyone involved.”
Though it is her first year with the program, for her, mentoring a student is very similar to her work as a professional coach. In her business, Wingo Coaching, she works collaboratively with her clients to create a plan of action and achieve results.
“I believed I had something to contribute,” she says. CONNECT “gave me the opportunity to work with a student and help them create or improve their own plans to get them where they want to be professionally.”
Wingo was paired with Saleem, who serves as president of SHRM@VCU and was looking for a way to gain real-world experience in human resources instead of just reading about it in textbooks. During her time with Wingo, Saleem honed her interviewing skills, realized the importance of networking and outlined the steps she needs to take to reach her career goals.
“We shared the ways we go about achieving goals,” Saleem says. “Even though we work differently, I think we both found new ways to try and accomplish things.”
Wingo agrees and says she, too, benefited from the mentoring process.
“We’re from different generations, we have different experiences, and I can learn just as much from her as she can from me,” she says.
For both Bryan and Wingo, CONNECT gave them the chance to share their experiences and skills with students preparing to enter the workforce. Both are enthusiastic about coming back for another year and are excited for the program’s future.
“I want [to mentor] more students,” Bryan says with a smile. “There are so many students who want to be a part of this. I’m just glad I can keep making these connections.”
— Anthony Langley is a VCU senior majoring in mass communications.