Dan Strelka '89, CFO for the Salem, Va.-based Carter Machinery, arranged for Ted Melnik '17 (at left) to spend time shadowing employees in the company's marketing department, working closely with employees in data analytics and business information systems.

12.03.2015
By Karen Doss Bowman

Alumni and students pair up for career advice and networking

Roanoke College senior Jonathan Eary knows the power of networking. Connecting with Roanoke alumni has been a critical factor in his preparation for a career in finance.

"Finding a good job in the finance industry depends on really connecting with the right people and building relationships," says Eary, an economics and business administration major from Winston-Salem, N.C. "Roanoke alumni are a great resource for students. People are definitely important in helping you move forward in life and become successful in your career."

Eary participated in Roanoke's Alumni Mentoring Program two years ago, during his sophomore year. He was paired with Jonathan Lee '95, Roanoke's director of alumni and family relations, who offered advice on networking and assisted Eary in making connections with Roanoke alumni working in finance careers. He talked to them about the finance sector and got advice on tailoring his resume for the field. Through those contacts, Eary gained confidence to successfully interview for the opportunity last summer to work as a sales and trading summer analyst for KCG Holdings Inc. in Jersey City, N.J.

"I learned so much and figured out what I wanted to do in my career from the internship," Eary says. "I learned what I liked about the finance industry, and what I don't like about it. It was a cool opportunity, and Roanoke alumni helped me get there."

Lee, who enjoyed serving as a mentor, was inspired by Eary's optimism, enthusiasm and ambition.

"He's bright, outspoken and a hard worker—he's a prime example of what we want our students at Roanoke to be," Lee says. "I'm fortunate to work at the College and to interact regularly with students, but through this mentoring relationship, I was able to build a deeper connection with a student. It's been rewarding to feel energized from that and to just enjoy it." 

Career Preparation Starts Early

The Alumni Mentoring Program began in 2013 as a pilot program that matched sophomores who were declared as business or economics majors with alumni working in business careers and living in areas near the College. Lee has worked closely with Toni McLawhorn, director of career services, to pair up students and alumni. 

Participants are asked to do at least one informational interview and one job shadowing session. Students also are required to prepare their resume, and mentors are encouraged to review the students' resumes and offer field-specific advice. The experience not only allows students to gain valuable professional contacts, but also to develop job-specific skills by applying classroom concepts to the real world. They also have the opportunity to sharpen their leadership and communication abilities while getting a feel for a professional work environment. 

This year, the successful program—now called Maroon Mentors—has been expanded to include a broader range of academic majors, including communication studies, the sciences, and sociology. Lee and McLawhorn are casting their nets wider, seeking alumni throughout the United States, and even abroad, to participate. 

"We still like that personal connection, but we also can incorporate technology to allow alumni to participate from a distance," says Lee, noting that more than 50 alumni-student pairs have been involved over the past two years. "They can meet students through Skype, e-mail or conference calls. The students and alumni don't necessarily have to meet face-to-face, but can use technology to bridge the divide."

The program still focuses on sophomores, because "the career development process needs to start early," McLawhorn says.

"We invite students at an early level in their college careers because we hope to catch them before they've made decisions and gone so far in their academic program that there's no turning back," she explains. "If they have questions or are unsure about a direction, they might be able to clarify their plans after they work with an alumni mentor." 

“It was a great opportunity to have an 'in' with a major company and to open doors and get an outsider's look at how the business operates.”

Ted Melnik '17

Learning About the Business World

Ted Melnik '17, a business administration major from Roanoke County, Va. who is concentrating in international business, had spent most of his summers working as a landscaper. He knew that spending time in a professional environment would help him confirm a direction for a future career in business, along with giving him valuable experience and broadening his network of contacts.

"I thought it would be a great opportunity to meet with a Roanoke graduate and learn what the corporate world is like," says Melnik, who plans to pursue a career in marketing.

Melnik was paired with Dan Strelka '89, chief financial officer for Salem-based Carter Machinery. Strelka arranged for Melnik to spend time shadowing employees in Carter Machinery's marketing department, working closely with employees in data analytics and business information systems.

"I got to look over the shoulders of the marketing professionals and ask them questions about their work," Melnik says. "It was a great opportunity to have an 'in' with a major company and to open doors and get an outsider's look at how the business operates."

As the business world becomes more and more specialized, Strelka points out that working closely with alumni mentors gives students a chance to see the many applications of their specific academic majors.

"Many business majors don't have a good perspective to where their interest lies until they get in the real-world setting," Strelka says. "I think moving from the academic side of what they've learned and seeing the real-world application in practice is the biggest benefit for students. It helps them formulate where there's an intersection between their interests and what they're good at. And that helps them formulate a future career direction."

The mentor/mentee relationship sometimes leads to long-lasting friendships. Ellie Hammer '10, a financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Roanoke, became a mentor to Sara Sloman '12, four years ago when Sloman was hired as an intern in Hammer's office. Hammer has given her career advice, critiqued her resume and served as a job reference over the years, and the two continue to stay in touch.

"Ellie was confident, and she made me realize I could succeed, no matter what area of business I decided to go into," says Sloman, who lives in Richmond and is an internal auditor for Markel.

Because the professional finance sector is male-dominated, Hammer considers it vital for women to have positive role models in the field.

"If I had been able to have a female mentor when starting my career, that would have been huge," Hammer says. "In planning a career, many women have questions about starting a family and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. One of the questions I faced was, 'Can I do it all, or am I going to have to choose?' If I had a female role model who could say to me, 'It's achievable and you can do it all,' that would have been really powerful. I think I can contribute by encouraging more women to choose our industry." 

Hammer encourages more alumni to participate in Maroon Mentors, adding that the experience is just as rewarding for the alumni volunteers.

"It's just been really inspiring to work with Sara and to see her grow as a person and in her career," Hammer says. "As a mentor you get as much as, if not more, from helping someone else and paying it forward. There's a lot of satisfaction gained from helping someone else, and students are so impressionable and eager to learn."

The program also offers another opportunity to keep alumni engaged with the College-and to earn the loyalty of future alumni.

"We offer a lifetime of opportunities for alumni to be engaged with the College," Lee says. "We also want to make sure that our students understand they will be alumni someday. They'll see that this is part of what being a Maroon is. Hopefully when they're established in their careers, they'll want to be able to do the same thing for a student who's coming up behind them."