This Centennial Year, we honor our past, present, and future. This article was originally published Jan. 14, 2021.
For 100 years, the McIntire School has been made stronger by the people who are committed to our ever-growing community of business learners and visionaries. Driven by a desire to use the power of commerce to effect positive change across the world, our alumni help to enact that transformation on Grounds and beyond by investing their time and care in current Commerce School students. In celebration of our Centennial, we recognize the work of our many dedicated mentors, who, year after year, share their knowledge and guidance with the passionate third-years, fourth-years, and graduate students who represent McIntire’s future success.
Navigating a path to personal accomplishment isn’t easy, but as the Teddy Roosevelt saying goes, “Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty.” While that may be true, it doesn’t mean that we couldn’t all use a little help from a more seasoned colleague during trying times.
Take first-year UVA students: For many, figuring out how to balance academic excellence with all that life at the University offers can be a daunting proposition, especially when weighing the more laborious factors of their many new responsibilities. Oftentimes, it only takes the insight and care of an experienced peer to help clarify opaque details to guide novices through any particularly thorny problems that might arise.
Those who have been part of the McIntire School’s Commerce Cohort program have thrived, in large part, because of mentors. Opportunities for mentorship are built into the program’s curriculum and fostered through it, with meetings taking place during and outside of the scheduled non-graded, one-credit class designed for invited first-years.
First launched in 2018, the Comm Cohort was created to offer a select group of high-achieving, high-need students from traditionally underrepresented groups a practical way to explore both McIntire and University resources while developing their analytical, communication, and employment skills. The Cohort’s two-semester format—which has since been extended to include a second-year component due to the overwhelmingly positive response from its inaugural group—ensures that its participants receive ample mentoring from both McIntire staff involved in the program, and from Comm students who share the benefit of their experiences with their peers.
Three current third-year Comm students who benefited from mentorship as members of that initial Cohort class are now working with this year’s Cohort first-years, serving as mentors themselves. We spoke with Emma Nsiah, B. Pressley, and Brielle Symdon about how mentorship made a difference in their lives and how it continues to have a positive impact as they hope to pass on what they themselves have learned.
Having Learned from the Best
The three members of the Class of ’22 say that mentorship from older students was integral to their advancement academically and personally. Nsiah says that she couldn’t have asked for a better mentor than Latrell Lee (McIntire ’20).
“He was always there to answer any questions or concerns I may have had my first and second year,” says the Fairfax, VA, native, explaining that while he was her main point of contact, she recalls that the other mentors involved in the program always emphasized that any of the mentees could always reach out to them. “My relationship with Latrell established the basis of the relationship I have now with my mentees. He really showed me the ins and outs of being a mentor. It would’ve been a lot harder [to take on this role] if I hadn’t had him first.”
As a first-year, Symdon also worked with Lee, and in the following year, she was a mentee of Ally Ramella (McIntire ’20). Both assisted her with tackling Comm prerequisites as well as preparing to apply to McIntire. “Being able to talk to my mentors about these things and knowing that Comm students wanted me to succeed made the whole process easier and feel less intimidating.”
She says that some of the most meaningful advice she received from her mentors concerned the diversity of experience that students bring with them to the Commerce School. “Just because you’re not taking heavy quant classes (like economics), it does not mean that you’re not a good fit for McIntire.”
Both Nsiah and Symdon say that the Commerce Cohort provided access to McIntire staff and faculty who offered invaluable advice. “I am so grateful for [Associate] Dean Rebecca Leonard’s and Sadie Royal Collins’ constant support and guidance,” says Symdon.
Nsiah concurs: “They were always so supportive and willing to meet with me to discuss anything from my interests to whether the Comm School was a good fit for me. To this day, they both still periodically check in on me, and I’m so appreciative of both of them.”
Pressley, who admits that as an incoming first-year at UVA, he wasn’t entirely sure what he was getting into when he joined the Comm Cohort, says that he quickly realized that it was extremely worthwhile, especially after he was assigned a mentor.
“My mentor was Courtney Hou (McIntire ’20), and she was amazing at what she did,” he says. “She was constantly checking in and providing assistance whenever we needed it by taking us out to eat or grabbing a quick coffee.” Pressley also says that she helped him gain the confidence to apply to the Commerce School, and provided crucial advice throughout the process.
Passing It On
The Finance concentrator says that since middle school, mentors have been pivotal in his life, and as such, he has maintained an interest in giving back, having joined College Mentors for Kids as a first-year. That drive carried over, prompting Pressley to reach out to Leonard and Collins and ask if he could be a mentor for the Cohort—before he had even been admitted to McIntire.
“After seeing what Courtney did for me and her other mentees and knowing how the Cohort helped me, I had no hesitation in giving back. It was something I wanted to do. So far, the experience has been great. I have gotten really close with two of my mentees, who are full of energy,” he says. “COVID-19 certainly made it hard to meet in person, but I was able to pull off a dinner near the end of the semester. I plan to step it up this semester, as my mentees are now one year away from applying to the Commerce School.”
Nsiah says the most important factor that drove her to become a mentor to current Comm Cohort students concerns the chance to share her unique experiences as a minority UVA student. “Many of the kids in the Cohort come from historically underrepresented groups, and it’s nice to hear the firsthand experiences of someone who shares an identity with you. The position also allows me to meet new people from various backgrounds, which has been hard with the pandemic, so I’m grateful to have been able to meet all of my mentees in spite of everything.”
The sense of community that Symdon felt in the Comm Cohort as an out-of-state student from Hartland, WI, made it an easy choice for her to continue participating in it in a new role. “I still enjoy catching up with my Comm Cohort peers, which made me want to be a mentor. I hope I can help build this same sense of community for these first-year students,” she says.
Symdon recalls that during the fall 2020 semester, she felt particularly valued as a mentor when she began fielding questions about her history applying to McIntire and studying and test-taking tips, as well as internship and career advice. Being interviewed by one of her mentees for a COMM 1800 project resonated with her deeply. “Just being able to offer some of the same advice that helped me when I was a first-year was very meaningful.”
Pressley had a similar experience when two of his mentees interviewed him for the same course. “I was able to learn a lot about myself as a mentor and also provide advice to my first-year mentees that should serve them well going forward. In addition, I was able to learn a lot about my mentees, which got me excited to keep growing our relationships moving forward.”
Nsiah says that a few of the best moments during the fall 2020 semester came when her charges began approaching her on their own. “It was so nice to have them come to me for advice, with questions, or to ask for help with a project. To me, that meant we had started building a relationship, and that is so exciting to me.”
All three mentors’ plans for the spring 2021 semester are geared toward incorporating more real-world time. The necessary restrictions brought about by COVID-19 have certainly made forming connections a different prospect, but the third-year mentors would like to incorporate more social interaction to strengthen the bonds they have each established with their mentees.
Nsiah would like them to start thinking critically about the Comm School and whether it’s truly a good fit for them. “I’m hoping that together we can start to explore other majors and extracurriculars they may be interested in, and maybe even venture out together into the Charlottesville community, which can be hard to explore alone as a first-year.”
Symdon, too, hopes to have more in-person meetings to continue growing her mentor-mentee relationships. “If my mentees decide not to choose to apply to the Comm School, I still want to help them find a major that they are passionate about,” she says. “Also, with COVID-19, I understand how difficult it can be to make connections for the first year, so I hope to offer some connection to UVA that makes my mentees feel like a part of the UVA community.”
For his part, Pressley is intending to engage in more one-on-one sessions to get to know each of his mentees better. He plans to mirror some of the techniques and behaviors he learned through his mentor, Hou. “I want to get close enough with all of my mentees so that they can come to me for anything, even non-school related things,” he says.