Ask Professor Emeritus Omer Carey, now 87 years old, what the University of Alaska Anchorage was like when he started in 1973.
Back then, it was small but the municipality was on the verge of rapid expansion thanks to the oil discovery at Prudhoe Bay. Today, about 17,000 UAA alumni live and work in Anchorage with almost 40,000 alumni statewide.
To keep Alaska’s talent pool flowing, UAA’s College of Business and Public Policy kicked off its Leadership Fellows on Sept. 9 at the Student Union Den. Carey, a frequent donor to the CBPP, was in the audience to cheer the students on and wish the best for the program.
“I hope it keeps growing,” he said.
Now in its fourth cohort, the 2016 Leadership Fellows pairs 21 exceptional students with business mentors from the community representing telecommunications, energy, banking, finance, aviation, Native corporations and economic and regional development.
Overseeing it all is Professor Terry Nelson, Ph.D., who took charge of the program in its second year, bringing it from an initial four participants to now five times as many. Quite a few students have already asked about applying for the next cohort, she said, while local businesses have been seeking out opportunities, saying, “We want to give back, we want to mentor students.”
How it works
The point of the Leadership Fellows is for students to learn valuable skills applicable not only to their degree majors but to eventual careers that will hopefully progress from entry level positions to decision makers and beyond.
After an interview process with a two-person panel which mixes UAA faculty with business representatives, senior-level undergraduates and master level students are chosen on their desire and commitment to improving leadership skills. Grade point averages are not the primary point of consideration, as GPAs are not indicative of whether students have the ability to lead, Nelson noted.
The program runs for a full academic year, from September through May. Students are encouraged to meet with their mentors at least twice a month, although many will schedule weekly coffee chats, job shadowing days, resume reviews, and additional dates to attend workshops or networking events.
UAA Alumni Association Executive Director Rachel Morse thanked the mentors for making this powerful connection and taking a personal interest in students, giving them a hand up to success.
“To the students, what I have to say is this: if you are smart, which I think you are, you’re going to work very hard in this program,” she said. “You’re going to take advantage of the opportunities, build that portfolio, build that network, attend graduate club activities and your calendar is going to be full. And you are going to be tired when you are done — satisfied but tired.”
Stand up, stand out
Once a protégé, now a mentor, GCI Director of Digital Experience and Business Intelligence Matt Childs spoke fondly of his undergraduate days at UAA, which were “a long, long, long time ago,” but noted that it wasn’t everything it could have been.
When he attended, for example, he could not take advantage of all that a university has to offer. (As he worked full time, took only night classes, and completed assignments in between shifts, he rarely had time for anything.)
Recently Childs returned to UAA to complete his masters in business administration. Because he wanted to be involved and take part in the networking he missed as an undergraduate, he jumped at the chance to be president of the MBA Student Association. And, since starting his degree, he has received two promotions at GCI, a reflection, he said, of the quality of the university’s curriculum.
Advising students to become and stay involved, he said that by joining the Leadership Fellows, “You have already stepped out and above the script and said, ‘I want to do something extra.’”
Words of encouragement
The keynote speech was given by Leah Boltz, director of marketing, business development and communications at Bettisworth North Architects, a planning firm with offices in Fairbanks and Anchorage.
Having previously served as a mentor, Boltz was able to speak in detail as to what can be expected during the course of the year, advising participants to stay flexible and realistic. She also asked mentors to remember the issues they too once faced when transitioning from graduation to employment.
She suggested that now they could help smooth this process for students by developing their strengths and a personal brand that will make them excellent new hires.
Her former protégé, Alexa Wolf, would have offered some pointers as well, but was unable to attend as she is now co-managing an insurance agency in Wasilla.
“Every time I hear these stories, I get jealous of my own program,” Nelson joked. “When I did my MBA, I did not have these opportunities.”
A UAA alumni with a bachelor’s in journalism and a minor in professional writing, Boltz said the Leadership Fellows can be a huge economic driver for the state, connecting industry with students, and connecting students with jobs. She would like to see equivalent programs implemented across all of UAA’s colleges, making a huge impact in Alaska and in the world.
As the 2016 Leadership Fellows program progresses throughout the academic year, the Alaska Journal of Commerce will check back with students and their mentors, and find out what each may have learned from the other.
Stephanie Prokop can be reached at [email protected]