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'Boot camp' teaches business principles to Arts & Sciences students

  • Inaugural participants
    Inaugural participants
    Twenty rising juniors and seniors were the inaugural participants in the Cohen Career Center's first "boot camp" for Arts & Sciences majors. Here, the group poses for a photo at Google.
    Photo courtesy of David Lapinski
  • Working as a team
    Working as a team
    Students completed numerous case studies and other projects -- such as this team-building marshmallow task -- throughout the week.
    Photo courtesy of David Lapinski

Just one day after William & Mary’s spring semester officially ended, 20 of the university’s rising juniors and seniors left for boot camp.

In typical boot camp fashion, they rose before the sun and charged into each day, facing their fears and challenging their limits. But the students weren’t joining the military; they were training for another kind of combat zone: the world of business.

The students were the inaugural participants in the Cohen Career Center’s first “boot camp” for Arts & Sciences majors. The five-day program held in Washington, D.C, offered students a chance to learn basic business principles from industry experts while also tackling case studies, networking with alumni and learning about career opportunities.

‘No matter what the major’

The idea for the program came from feedback that students offered as part of the curriculum review process. Undergraduates in the Arts & Sciences reported a desire to have more access to business classes and experience with group projects and presentations.

The Cohen Career Center’s Alumni Advisory Board began to look into what other universities were doing, and found that several – including Wake Forest, Notre Dame and Dartmouth – offer business immersion experiences for their students.

The students had several opportunities to work as teams throughout the week.Based on those benchmarks, two members of the board – Josh Newfield ’96, MBA ’06 and board president Jeremy Benedict ’97 – worked with David Lapinski, senior associate director of the Cohen Career Center, to create the “boot camp” curriculum.

They had four goals in mind for participants: that they would understand fundamental principles of each business discipline, learn about various jobs and career paths available to them, believe that their Arts & Sciences background is applicable to business, and feel confident in applying and interviewing for jobs.

“A lot of these students when they get out, they don’t feel as if they are as competitive as someone who went through a BBA program and has a marketing degree,” said Newfield, who experienced the same kind of doubt when he graduated with a degree in philosophy. “Our voice is to say, you do. There’s intrinsic value, there’s real-world value.

“We hear time and time again from employers that hire W&M students that they are hiring thinkers, people with the ability to think on their feet, manage change and be independent-thought provokers and problem solvers. You can be that no matter what the major.”

One thing the organizers did not want to do was try to turn the students into “business workers.”

“The fact that they can just converse about it is what makes them marketable,” said Lapinski. “Recruiters care more about the skill sets that students have than what they are majoring in, but the students have to understand how their liberal arts experience applies to business. They have to be able to communicate how their background aligns to various business disciplines, and the only way that they can communicate that is if they understand a little bit about the field.”

Inspired to perform

The participating students – all rising juniors or seniors – were selected for the program through a competitive application process.

“I wanted to learn more about business and potential career paths,” said Sky Sprayberry ’15, a classical studies major. “My hope was that business boot camp would provide an opportunity to get a taste of the real business world, expose me to a broad range of business situations, and help me to find a focus which I enjoy.”

Forty-five alumni gave of their time, resources and expertise throughout the week.The program started May 13. Each day began at 6:30 a.m. when students would go to a business – such as Booz Allen Hamilton, Google, or PricewaterhouseCoopers -- and learn about topics such as accounting or marketing strategies from W&M alumni who are currently working in those fields. At the end of each day, the students were given a case study. Panels of young alumni met with them in the evening to offer advice and guidance on the case studies, and then, back at the hotel, the students worked on the projects in groups. The following morning, they presented their work to panels of business executives – mostly W&M alumni – who evaluated their presentations.

Although the days were filled, government major Chase Jordan ’15 said that he enjoyed the fast-paced nature of the program.

“I think that intensity inspired us to perform,” he said. “That kind of pressure felt very real-world.”

Forty-five alumni gave of their time and resources throughout the week, and they soon found that their efforts were well worth it.

“I never cease to be amazed by W&M students’ appetite for learning, and their thoughtful approach to new problems,” said Benedict, who is now the CEO of Guided Surgery Solutions, LLC. “The students approached the new material with a great attitude and a real eagerness to dive in and participate. Learning is a two-way street, and everyone got out of the week what they put into the week. I really enjoyed getting to know a few of the students and watching their perspectives grow with each day’s discussions.”

The students also dazzled the businesses that participated in the boot camp.

“The companies afterward were asking us about the students because they were so impressed with how they presented themselves,” said Lapinski.

‘An empowering learning experience’

Based on feedback from students and other findings, the boot camp’s organizers see their inaugural effort as a complete success.

“We did a pre-survey, and we did a post-survey to see where their skills were in certain areas, and they all increased dramatically,” said Lipinski. “We’re really pleased with it.”

Students, too, reported their satisfaction with the experience.

“This experience has definitely helped me to think critically about my career path and prepare me for applying for full-time jobs this coming fall,” said Tracy Brinkerhoff ’14, an English major and economics minor. “The advice, stories, and support of successful alumni that we were introduced to throughout the program have been invaluable resources to my own professional development.”

Sprayberry said that it was an experience she could not have received with a single internship.

“I acquired new skills, gained confidence, and met fascinating business professionals,” she said. “The bootcamp was an empowering learning experience. It created a solid foundation that I will be able to build upon.”

With their first successful boot camp now under their belts, the program’s organizers are now looking at how they can replicate the experience and offer it to more students.

According to the program’s first participants, it is something that more Arts & Sciences students should do.

“It was an absolutely fantastic experience, and I think that every liberal arts student should try to have an opportunity to try to participate in it,” said Jordan.