It’s one thing to talk about empowering all students; it’s another to do actually do something about it.
One new program at the McIntire School is already making a difference: the Commerce Cohort. Launched this past September with 31 first-year students of the University’s Class of 2022, the program is providing unprecedented learning opportunities for prospective McIntire students from traditionally underrepresented groups.
Funded by alumni support and managed by McIntire’s Office of Undergraduate Admission, the Commerce Cohort is designed to give high-achieving, high-need students practical entry points for exploring Commerce School and University resources. The curriculum is aimed at developing practical skills for college as well as future employment, and features sessions on critical analysis, self-reflection, and communication—all conducted through a business lens. With six Blue Ridge Scholars, two Echols Scholars, and three high school valedictorians in a program that includes 51% first-generation college students and 77% who qualify for need-based financial assistance, the Cohort is a diverse group. This range is by design, as the review committee for the Cohort has ensured that the class profile supports McIntire’s ongoing mission to create a more inclusive student community.
A Plan of Action
So how do the participating students—college newbies with full plans of study—make the time for yet another class?
The Cohort has made excellent use of its relatively brief schedule.
Throughout the fall semester, participants take a non-graded, one-credit class, COMM 1559: “Commerce Cohort Seminar,” coupled with McIntire prerequisite COMM 1800: “Foundations of Commerce.” In the spring, the students have an additional course, COMM 2000: “Business Skills in Today’s Workplace.”
Since the program’s launch three months ago, students have learned to set goals, identify their strengths, and work effectively in groups, through instructor-led sessions by McIntire’s Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Rebecca Locke Leonard, along with guest speakers lending important perspectives to the Cohort. McIntire Professor Gary Ballinger explained the dynamics of teamwork and organizational behavior; Professor Ira Harris discussed critical thinking; Meredith A. Combs of PricewaterhouseCoopers stressed the importance of personal branding and networking; and Professor Ryan Nelson, joined by Comm Council President Anant Das (McIntire ’19), spoke about the wide variety of professional applications possible with a Commerce degree.
The Cohort also heard from current Commerce students, who helped clarify the McIntire application and evaluation processes and detailed the criteria for the undergraduate program’s academic curriculum, student life, and many recruiting opportunities.
Culminating in group presentations, which included a panel of alumni and McIntire students, the Cohort learners applied research, interview, teamwork, and communication skills to discuss individual Commerce School’s concentrations at length for the benefit of their fellow potential McIntire applicants.
An Invitation to Understanding and Experience
Before being asked to join the Cohort, student Macy Brandon (A&S ’22) had no previous knowledge of McIntire. “I saw the invitation as a huge honor. Being that I was not familiar with the Commerce School—but knowing that I wanted to do business—I immediately grew excited about this opportunity to learn more about the School and business as a whole,” she says.
Ultimately, she found the most beneficial component of the Cohort to be the many interactions it facilitates. “Being able to hear from Commerce students and faculty has definitely been the best and most valuable part,” she says. “There are so many questions and rumors about the Commerce School that it is extremely intimidating for a first-year, so this program made me more knowledgeable about what the School is truly about and what it means to be a student at McIntire. I also love all of the different events that we are able to participate in, such as the EY Networking Conference.”
Nathaniel Cantu (A&S ’22) agreed that the Cohort helped to demystify McIntire, but in a fun setting where he was able to learn along with his classmates. “I certainly would not have anywhere near the information that I do now if I hadn’t done this,” he says. “I gained many more opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise been available or known to me such as the Goldman Sachs presentation. The most valuable part of the experience for me, however, has to be the great time I had creating a presentation with my group of other Cohort members.”
Other students were equally positive about the experience. “Coming into the year, I was pretty certain that I wanted to study business. Being in the Cohort has solidified this desire, and now I know which tracks I would like to pursue as well,” says Amy White (A&S ’22).
Tsega Fisseha (A&S ’22) says the Cohort served to solidify plans that include hopes of pursuing a Commerce degree with a minor in the College of Arts & Sciences, while applying that combined learning to many possibilities. “Career-wise, being in the Commerce Cohort has given me the outlook that an education at McIntire leads to anything I want to pursue. I am now confident that a B.S. in Commerce will prepare me for whatever the workforce has to offer.”
Learning about McIntire’s undergraduate program convinced Sara Hamilton (A&S ’22) that the Comm School would empower her to accomplish professional and personal goals. “The B.S. in Commerce would instill valuable skills within me that would be beneficial across many fields and disciplines,” she says. “I like the fact that the School emphasizes collaboration and inspires a strong work ethic.”
First-year LaNija Brown (A&S ’22) believes that the Cohort has already proven to be a worthwhile investment of her time, thanks to the content learned and the relationships formed through the Cohort seminars. “I came to UVA knowing absolutely nothing about the Commerce School—I actually didn’t know there was one. In a few months, I went from that to knowing all about the prerequisites, the ICE curriculum, the tracks, and other information that I would not have gotten otherwise. Also, the connections I’ve made are amazing. Isela [teaching assistant] and Dean Leonard [instructor] not only do a great job running the program, but they have also been huge support systems in my personal life, and I can’t thank them enough for that.”
Making a Positive Impact
For her part, Leonard has enjoyed leading the new program, experiencing a reciprocal learning experience from meaningful interactions with the course’s inaugural group.
“It has been inspiring to work with the Cohort students, who have so much energy and enthusiasm to learn and a strong desire to expose themselves to the field of business,” she says. “It has also been humbling and eye-opening to see the challenges many of these students face that are so different from their UVA peers—issues like health insurance or worrying about expenses and feeling like everyone around you has networks and skills sets that you didn’t know existed. We are excited about the opportunity to inform, educate, and make a significant difference in the lives of these young people.”