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ODU’s Top Business Students Given Opportunity to Enhance Their Education Via Executive Mentor Program

As a single mother and distance-learning student in business management at Old Dominion University, Natalie Fox is used to juggling responsibilities. After earning an associate degree at Rappahannock Community College, the Gloucester resident began taking ODU courses via distance learning in 2012.

She's scheduled to graduate as a dean's list student next spring, with a goal of a career in the medical business field.

Fox said she's incredibly grateful for the mentorship of Nancy Grden, a businesswoman with a long career in the health care industry and the chair of the ODU College of Business and Public Administration (CBPA) Executive Advisory Council.

"Nancy has been so kind to answer all of my questions and get ideas going in my head about things I have not thought of concerning health care work and career direction in general," Fox said.

The relationship, which both women look forward to building upon over the next academic year and continuing after Fox graduates from ODU, didn't happen by accident.

Fox was selected as one of the first candidates for the CBPA Executive Mentor program, created in fall 2012 by Assistant Dean Connie Merriman.

The program was established to provide some of the college's strongest students an opportunity to learn from successful executives, entrepreneurs and public-sector leaders. For the school year just ended, eight high-achieving students were matched with mentors who shared academic and career interests, and could provide advice to students about a wide variety of topics.

Grden was selected as a mentor for Fox because of her work as general manager of Genomind, a personalized medicine company for neuropsychiatry, and founder of Avenir, LLC, which provides advisory/consulting services for innovation and entrepreneurism.

"I've had the privilege of serving as a mentor and developing mentor programs at my alma maters and also at Amerigroup, so I jumped at the chance to participate when CBPA wanted to launch this pilot for high-achieving business undergraduates," Grden said.

The two achievers clicked this past year, despite the fact that all their communication occurs remotely. As a distance learning student, Fox meets with Grden by phone or email or videoconference. The lack of face-to-face meetings hasn't hindered their connection.

"Nancy and I talk at least once a month and inform each other of new things going on in our lives related to school and business," Fox said. "I love that I can ask her all my questions about specific fields of work, how to get started in the workforce - all the questions graduating students face." She added that as a distance-learning student, the convenience of having a mentor available so readily by email has been invaluable.

"I look forward to our calls and emails," Grden said. "I enjoy hearing about Natalie's coursework and have a better appreciation for balancing education, work and family. Also, I always enjoy hearing Natalie's perspectives and questions about business and health care - very insightful and on target."

Merriman said the pilot program exceeded her expectations in terms of positive experiences. Based on the results of a survey completed in April by all participants, the primary success factor is "the match" - identifying commonalities between mentors and mentees. For example, a student majoring in international business was matched with the vice president for global operations at Campbell Soup Co.

The survey asked mentors and mentees to share rewards and challenges. The majority of rewards identified by students shared a common theme - "real world" and "relevant." Students indicated it was challenging to engage in conversations with high-ranking executives, but also noted that the challenges were what helped them grow most in the program.

Larry Kittleberger, a member of the M.B.A. Advisory Council who served as a mentor, summed up the rewards for the mentors. "A person at this age can become anyone they wish if they set their mind to it. People tend to not think of themselves as a potential top executive, politician, administrator or academic leader. They tend to be somewhat humble about themselves and it is nice to help open their eyes to possibilities."

Plans for the 2013-14 academic year include increasing the number of mentor/mentee pairs to 25 and expanding the mentor group to members of any CBPA advisory council. Some recommendations from the pilot survey will be implemented.

"I think the best recommendation we received came from a student participant, who suggested we advertise the program to all CBPA majors to hopefully inspire them to earn better grades to have an opportunity to participate in this program," Merriman said.

Fox and Grden say they plan to continue their professional association after Fox graduates. "I expect we will 'unofficially' keep touch thereafter - I know I will be very interested in how things unfold for her," Grden said.

Fox said she is grateful to have the opportunity to participate in the mentor program. "ODU staff and faculty do not just leave students with a degree; they help prepare students to get a job after graduating, too, and for me the executive mentor program has played a big role in that."

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