For many students, the mountain setting and outdoor options surrounding Western Carolina University are a primary draw. But when it comes to launching a career, a metropolitan area has its own attraction. So on an early morning in March, 16 students from WCU programs across the spectrum – from criminal justice to sport management, from music to financial planning – boarded two university vans and headed to Atlanta for a day they hoped would provide experience and opportunity. Waiting to meet them was a contingent of WCU alumni who had volunteered to serve as hosts and career mentors for the day.
This inaugural “alumni and networking day” was planned collaboratively by WCU’s offices of Career Services, Alumni Affairs and Development and funded in part by a grant from the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan to support engaged learning. It was inspired by a similar, multiday event hosted by the Ohio University Alumni Association in the Charlotte area, which attracts large numbers of that university’s graduates. That event, nearly a decade old, attracts approximately 100 students annually. For WCU, a history of involved alumni in the Atlanta area, along with its size and location, was a key factor in the decision to stage similar activities there. The university has approximately 2,000 alumni in the Atlanta area, said Marty Ramsey ’85, director of WCU alumni affairs, and the Western Club of Georgia, based in the greater Atlanta area, is an active one, hosting four or five events a year. Robert Folsom ’66 MAEd ’68 leads that club and hosted two students for the networking event. “Atlanta is home to some of our most loyal and dedicated alumni,” Ramsey said. Said Chris Mueller, executive director of resource development, “We thought the event would be a way to connect and reconnect alumni to the university, and specifically to our students.”
Students, who were chosen based on a faculty nomination and a letter of application, spent the day literally following in the footsteps of their alumni hosts. For criminal justice majors Daniel Barnes ’11 and Rebecca Oates, whose host, Col. Milton H. Beck ’88, is a division commander with the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office, this meant touring the Cobb County Jail – the second-largest in the state – from the inside and participating in a 360-degree “shoot or don’t shoot” electronic training scenario that overwhelmed their senses and challenged their instincts. For Tony “T.J.” Eaves, a business administration and law major, and Jeremiah Mosteller, a political science major, who shadowed Jim Beddingfield ’67, a semiretired attorney, it meant experiencing real-life courtroom drama in the trial of an Atlanta gang member ultimately convicted of felony murder. The experience inspired Mosteller to “be a part of something that makes people’s lives better,” he said.
The alumni, with their experience, expertise and offers of help, made an impression on the students. Zachary Rumble ’11, a psychology major, paired with Robert Folsom ’66 MAEd ’68, a college recruitment specialist with Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga. “The warmness and friendliness that Bob showed all day to students and employees – he never stopped smiling,” Rumble said. “To me, that was really something.” Rebecca Lautier, a commercial and electronic music major, spent the day with William “Cadillac Jack” Choate, the host of a popular morning show on Atlanta country radio station WKHX-FM, KICKS 101.5. Lautier called the experience “a good opportunity for learning outside of the classroom.” She was struck by the level of intensity a radio program demanded and about work behind the scenes in promoting the program to different markets.
The student enthusiasm was matched by that of the alumni hosts. “This was as much an opportunity for us as it was for the students,” said Bruce Clayton ’71, senior vice president of human resources for Genuine Parts Co., a distributor of automotive replacement parts, industrial replacement parts, office products and electrical/electronic materials in Atlanta. Clayton hosted Rene Gamez, an accounting major, and Shannon Owen ’11, a financial planning major. “It was really a pleasure to interact with the students. It’s refreshing, and I wish we did more of this,” he said.
Nate Hunzaker ’11, a computer information systems and marketing major, recognized “great value in connecting with alumni.” His host was Keith Harris ’83, director of business services with the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta. “I really look forward to being able to do something like this when I’m an alum,” Hunzaker said. That’s good news to Pat Kaemmerling ’71, vice chair of the WCU Foundation board of directors, who helped coordinate the event and spoke to participants at a dinner afterward. “You can bring so much to the university” with gifts of time, talent and treasure, said Kaemmerling, co-owner and chief financial officer of Access Computers Inc. in Norcross, Ga., a business she runs with her husband, David. Recalling Chancellor John Bardo’s message urging students to make a difference in their world, she said, “If every student who graduates from Western Carolina can be the best in their world, the cumulative effect of that would be amazing.”
Alumni and students said they hoped the networking event was the beginning of something more, and that’s the plan, said Michael Despeaux, career services coordinator and counselor who oversaw the student selection process and helped coordinate the day. A survey Despeaux conducted after the event showed that students overwhelmingly considered the day in Atlanta a positive experience and one that provided insight into future career plans. Beyond that, several students were exploring job possibilities connected to the event. “We definitely want to build on this,” said Despeaux.
Sixteen students and 11 alumni participated in WCU’s first alumni networking day in the Atlanta metropolitan and outlying areas.
Anthony Ballard ’11, an accounting and financial planning major, and Stephen Kummer ’11, business administration major, paired with Robert Thomas ’70, president and chief executive officer of EIS Inc., a supplier of products to electrical equipment manufacturer and related industries
Daniel Barnes ’11, a criminal justice and psychology major, and Rebecca Oates, a criminal justice major, paired with Col. Milton H. Beck ’88, a division commander with the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office in Marietta, Ga.
Tony “T.J.” Eaves, a business administration and law major, and Jeremiah Mosteller, a political science major, paired with Jim Beddingfield ’67, a semiretired attorney in private practice, at courthouses in Rockdale County and Atlanta.
Christina Foster, a criminal justice and psychology major, and Ashley VandenHeuvel ’11, a forensic science major, paired with Clay Cox ’91, president of Professional Probation Services, a private probation provider with the courts of Georgia and located in Norcross, Ga.
Rene Gamez, an accounting major, and Shannon Owen ’11, a financial planning major, paired with Bruce Clayton ’71, senior vice president of human resources for Genuine Parts Co., a distributor of automotive and industrial replacement parts, office products and electrical/electronic materials
Nate Hunzaker ’11, a computer information systems and marketing major, paired with Keith Harris ’83, director of business services with the Coca-Cola Co. in Atlanta.
Rebecca Lautier, a commercial and electronic music major, paired with William Choate, the morning show host “Cadillac Jack” on WKHX-FM, KICKS 101.5, a country-format radio station in Atlanta.
Brittany Lysik, a sport management major, paired with Colby Allen, a manager with Drayer Physical Therapy Institute in Peachtree City, Ga.
Michael McLamb, a management major, paired with Scott Christian ’89, a wealth management adviser with Merrill Lynch in Alpharetta, Ga.
Zachary Rumble ’11, a psychology major, paired with Robert Folsom ’66 MAEd ’68, a college recruitment specialist with Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville, Ga.
Benjamin Ward ’11, an engineering technology major, paired with Matt Magnus ’04, an engineer with Conditioned Air Systems, an all-service residential, commercial and industrial heating, ventilating and air conditioning company in Gainesville, Ga.
Making the trip to Atlanta were (from left) Michael Despeaux of career services, Chris Mueller of development, students Rebecca Lautier, Ashley VandenHeuvel ’11, Daniel Barnes ’11, Christina Foster, Brittany Lysik, Rebecca Oates, Michael McLamb, Rene Gamez, Nate Hunzaker ’11, Anthony Ballard ’11, Benjamin Ward ’11, Shannon Owen ’11, Stephen Kummer ’11, Zachary Rumble ’11, Jeremiah Mosteller and Tony ‘T.J.’ Eaves, and Marty Ramsey ’85, director of alumni affairs.