UAFS Mentor Connections Program Forges Life-Changing Relationships
Three years before 15 students’ lives were changed by the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith’s Mentor Connections program, UAFS student Casey Millspaugh’s life was changed by a business card.
Millspaugh was a senior business student at UAFS when Bill Hanna, president of Hanna Oil and Gas, visited one of Millspaugh’s classes as a guest speaker. He left business cards and told the students to call him if they ever needed anything. Millspaugh did.
“I saw it as a business leader in the community reaching out to students and to the university to help them,” Millspaugh said. “And I realized the value in that, and what could become of that, and I wanted to know more from him.”
The two of them began to meet, initially as a way for Millspaugh to have a mentor in the business world. But the relationship blossomed into conversations that spanned both their professional and personal lives. Now, Millspaugh said, they communicate five to seven times a week.
He didn’t realize it at the time, but this experience would provide him the answer for a problem he wrestled with three years later. Millspaugh, who was now a 29-year-old UAFS graduate and account executive at UPS, had seen the brain drain firsthand, having watched many of his friends who grew up in Fort Smith and graduated from UAFS leave the area for other job opportunities.
But Millspaugh began to realize that those opportunities his friends sought out were also available in Fort Smith. For him, the question became: How could he get the best and brightest of Fort Smith’s youth to stay in the city and work long, fulfilling careers?
Then Millspaugh found a connection. The bond Millspaugh had with Hanna was unique, but what if it didn’t have to be? What if other students at UAFS could have the same opportunity Millspaugh did?
Millspaugh went to Rick Goins, alumni director at UAFS, with an idea for a new program that would pair business leaders in the community with university students in a mentor-mentee relationship in an effort to strengthen the bond between UAFS students and Fort Smith.
“The university changed the direction of my life for the better, and I feel that it’s my responsibility to help the university,” he said. “The area I saw where I could pay them back is by helping connect the university to the community. The Mentor Connections program is just the first baby step in my personal objective.”
“My mentorship has changed my life, and it’s going to continue to change my life,” he added. “And I wanted it to change other people’s lives as well.”
The Alumni Office launched the program in the fall, primarily asking students from the university’s Babb Center for Student Professional Development to participate. The program spanned the full school year, and the roster of mentors includes Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders; Ivy Owen, executive director of Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority; and Jim Walcott, president of Weldon, Williams & Lick.
The mentors and mentees meet once a month in a variety of settings – coffee shops, the mentor’s office, a quick lunch spot, dinner at a restaurant -- and they talk about both professional and personal subjects.
“My mentorship has changed my life, and it’s going to continue to change my life. And I wanted it to change other people’s lives as well.”
A unique aspect of the program is the addition of a recent UAFS alumnus to each mentor-mentee team. The alumnus works to facilitate the relationship between the two, but also gets the added benefit of being mentored as well.
“The alumni make the uncomfortableness a little more comfortable,” Millspaugh said. “The alumni have the experience of setting meetings and interacting with decision makers in their company, and they’ve been in the professional world a little longer than the students.”
The mentor program offers multiple benefits to the students who participate, but the most important benefit mirrors the purpose of the university itself: to prepare students for a future in the workplace.
But where the university’s curriculum provides an academic foundation and hands-on learning experiences, the mentorship focuses on less tangible lessons.
“It’s to help them understand what it’s going to take to transition from school to the real world,” Goins said. “We hope to build self-confidence in these students, and what I foresee five years down the road is that we’re going to have a substantial number of well-connected and engaged alumni.”
Cole Sullivan of Rogers, a finance major set to graduate in May, was pleasantly surprised to make such a connection. After being approached by the interim dean of the College of Business, he agreed to participate in mentoring program – and then discovered his mentor would be Judy McReynolds, CEO of ArcBest Corp.
“I was shocked. At the [program’s inauguration] ceremony when Rick revealed it, I couldn’t believe it,” Sullivan said. “ArcBest is a big employer down here, and to be able to sit down with her, it was just kind of unreal.”
Whereas other students might have leveraged a relationship with a CEO into a job opportunity, Sullivan chose another route: He didn’t tell McReynolds when he applied for and landed his student worker position as a pricing support analyst with the ArcBest subsidiary ABF Freight.
“I wanted to do it on my own,” he said. When he walked into her office wearing his ABF nametag, he caught her by surprise.
“She glanced at it and did a double take and asked, ‘Are you working here now?’” he said with a laugh.
McReynolds had high praise for Sullivan.
“Cole is a pleasant, hardworking young man, and I enjoyed getting to know him,” McReynolds said. “It is nice to see a student with his work ethic and approach succeed.”
In March, ABF Freight offered Sullivan a full-time job, which he’ll start after graduation. He hopes it will be the beginning of a long and fruitful career in the Fort Smith area.
“When I moved down here to attend UAFS, I was still set on transferring after two years. But this past year, even before I was offered the job with ABF, I said, ‘I’m going to stay in Fort Smith,’” he said. “This feels right, and I think it’s a combination of my experiences at UAFS that have really molded that idea of Fort Smith for me.”
But the mentorship has been as eye-opening for the mentors as it has been for the students.
“I’m 54 years old, and a 54-year-old’s perspective on life is different from a 24 year-old’s,” said Hanna, who is currently serving as a mentor to UAFS student Chukuwekere Ekeh of North Little Rock. “You lose sight of certain things, and you become somewhat set in your ways. But Chukuwekere and Casey, they’re inquisitive and full of questions, and it makes me be that way when I’m around them.”
To reinforce this notion, Hanna related the story of his first meeting with Ekeh.
“We sat there, and I’m trying to pour out all my knowledge, and at the end of our session Chukuwekere says, ‘I want you to read a couple of books,’” Hanna said. One was a speech given by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1910, and the other was “Who Stole My Cheese?”
The CEO was taken aback, unsure if Ekeh realized who was the mentor and who the mentee. But Hanna read the speech and the book, and was affected deeply by the latter.
“I shared copies for all my staff, my wife and my sons. It just became something that we all latched onto,” he said. “Looking for oil and gas is what I do, and the book was all about the resources you live off of and what happens when they’re not there. It really resonated with me.”
The anecdote illustrates just how beneficial Mentor Connections has been for all involved. In the words of Hanna, the program is a win-win.
“I’m really proud that this idea came from a student, and I love the initiative that students are bringing to this outreach effort,” Hanna said. “Fort Smith is a great community, and I think they can benefit greatly from a program like this. I want to see kids come here and stay here. That’s how this community is going to make it.”
Source: UAFS News