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Been There, Done That

Alumni Mentors Help Students Prepare for Economics Careers

Story by
Nancy Joseph

On a brisk October afternoon, nearly 60 economics majors gather in a large meeting room. They’ve signed up for the Economics Undergraduate Mentorship Program and are about to meet their mentors for the first time. They’re eager to make a good first impression.  They hope to find common ground. 

Mentor and mentee at mentorship event.

Mentor Zhi Wan (BA, 2010) and Economics major Cindy Chen met for the first time at the year's Economics Undergraduate Mentorship Program kickoff event.  Media credit: Nicole Johns

No doubt they will. After all, the mentors were once in their shoes. Nearly all of the mentors are UW Department of Economics alumni now working in economics-related professions. Some are recent graduates; others are CEOs with decades of experience. Nicole Johns (BA, English, 2000), outreach coordinator for the department, pairs the mentors and students based on shared professional interests and a host of other factors. “I spend a lot of time thinking about what students and mentors will bring to the relationship,” she says.

The program, now in its sixth year, was inspired by a survey of the department’s undergraduates. When students rated greater access to mentors as a top priority, Economics Visiting Committee member Walt Zabriskie (BA, Economics, 1971) proposed a pilot program. That year, 13 mentors and 18 students participated. The program proved wildly popular and has since mushroomed to 60 mentors and 90 students, with many mentors taking on multiple students. A four-member alumni board directs the program.

Mentor and mentee at mentorship event.

Economics major Sakin Ibrahim with her mentor David Griswold (BA, 1979). Media credit: Nicole Johns

“Even the brightest, highly motivated students worry about making the right career choice and getting a great job at a respected company,” says mentor Jeff Lewis (BA, Economics, 1989), vice president and regional account manager at Bluepoint Solutions. “From my own experience trying to determine my career path and find a job upon graduation, I know how challenging it can be. I knew being able to use my experience and offer advice would be invaluable to students.”

Both mentors and students attend an orientation to learn what is expected of them. Students also receive a handbook with suggested topics to cover, questions to ask, advice on how to be professional, and other tips. “Our mentors are busy people with high-powered jobs,” says Johns. “We want them to feel that students are showing up prepared. We want students to make the most of the mentor’s time.”

Honestly, I didn’t realize it was going to be this much fun.

Mentors meet their students at least once a quarter, though most pairs meet monthly or more. Sessions can cover anything from interviewing to career options to advice for standing out as an intern. “The most helpful aspect is having someone who has ‘been there and done that,’” says UW senior Reem Sabha, who joined the mentorship program during her junior year. “My mentor has taken many of the same classes I have, interned, worked full-time, completed his MBA—he could answer almost any question I had about my future path. I was not aware of all the possibilities that a degree in economics afforded me, which is why it was extremely helpful to have a mentor to guide me.”

Current and former members of the mentorship program's alumni board.

Current and former members of the mentorship program's alumni board include (from left) Gabe Hanzeli (BA, 1976), Olga Yang (BA, 1982), Walt Zabriskie (BA, 1971), Kerry Kahl (BA, 1973), Dimitri Perera (BA, 2008), and Martina Ji (BA, 2012). Media credit: Nicole Johns

The one thing Sabha’s mentor could not address: the obstacles faced by women in a traditionally male-dominated field. For that reason, Sabha switched to a female mentor for her senior year. Students often request a new mentor their second year, hoping to benefit from another career path, another network of professional contacts, and another perspective.  

Some mentors provide multiple perspectives in other ways. One pair of mentors regularly meet together with their mentees, providing double the input. Other mentors swap mentees for one meeting for the same reason. Then there’s Olga Yang (BA, Economics, 1982), who shares four students with another mentor. They all meet together as a group, an approach she finds works well for shy students who need encouragement to speak up.

Mentor and mentee meet on campus.

"The most helpful aspect is having someone who has ‘been there and done that,'" says UW senior Reem Sabha, right, with mentor Julie Parisio Roy (BA, 1997).  Media credit: Isaiah Brookshire

"We request the quietest students,” says Yang, a commercial underwriter with Philadelphia Insurance Company, who has been a mentor since the pilot project. “I tell them, ‘I want everyone to speak up. You can’t learn unless you come out of your shell. If you make a mistake, you learn from that.’ For years, these students have been getting good grades for doing exactly what they’ve been told. But in the workforce, you need to learn about people rather than just books.”

Yang, a long-time donor to the department, recently made a generous gift to support the mentorship program’s activities for the coming year, including career workshops, alumni career panels, receptions for student/mentor teams, and more.

Some people who attend those events are both mentors and former mentees. Recent graduates eager to become mentors first volunteer alongside experienced mentors before taking on students of their own. Mentor Pinky Li (BS, Economics, 2015) was Jeff Lewis’s mentee a few years ago and continues to seek his advice.  “I went from offering Pinky advice about interviewing skills and potential jobs to offering her advice in her current job,” says Lewis. “Now that she is a mentor, I also offer advice on that. The best part is that her office is only ten minutes from mine, so we get together regularly for coffee and lunch. We have become good friends.”

The satisfaction in helping students, and seeing them succeed, has inspired many mentors to recruit their friends to become volunteers.  Nearly all of the current mentors heard about the program through word-of-mouth.

“We want alums to love coming back to campus,” says Yang. “Sharing their experience with current students is a great way to reconnect with the department. Honestly, I didn’t realize it was going to be this much fun.”

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Want to support this program? Consider a gift to the Friends of Economics Fund