The story about how Mentor Connections came into being is like all creation tales: It has oft-repeated stories, larger-than-life figures, life-altering decisions, and far-ranging consequences.
The events began when Bill Hanna, president of Hanna Oil and Gas, visited a class at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith and left a stack of business cards with an invitation to students to call him if he could help them in any way.
One student in the class, Casey Millspaugh, ‘11, took Hanna up on the offer. So began a mentoring relationship that has lasted more than seven years.
In 2014, Millspaugh called Rick Goins, director of alumni affairs at UAFS, and said he wanted to get back involved with the university. When Goins and Millspaugh met for lunch, Casey recounted the story of his connection to Hanna to make a point. He wondered what might have happened if his classmates who left the area had made a connection with someone like Hanna who’d show them opportunities at home.
Goins began meeting with UAFS administration and reached out to Bill Hanna. Eventually they hit on the unique Mentor Connections model, which teams an upper-class student with a young alumni mentor and an executive mentor.
“Lots of alumni associations do mentor programs,” Goins said. “I have yet to see one that has the same format as this.”
Adding the young alumni mentor to the team helps the student feel a little more at ease with community figures of the stature of Hanna or Judy McReynolds, president and CEO of ArcBest. The connections help the young alum to remain involved with his or her alma mater while getting many of the same benefits from the executive mentor as the student does. The senior members of the team have the opportunity to remain connected to the younger generation, to know what’s happening on campus and to see what young professionals are experiencing as they start their career arcs.
Financial advisor Keith Lux, ‘07, is teamed this year with psychology major Nina Vu and Mat Pitsch, who is the executive director of the Western Arkansas Regional Intermodal Authority and House majority leader in the Arkansas General Assembly.
Lux believes the young alumni mentors get the best benefits in the team. From Nina, an international student from Vietnam, he has learned much about a different culture and Nina’s drive to achieve. From Pitsch he has learned that someone can be “very, very busy” and still carve out time to give back to the community and to individuals.
Lux said he admires Vu. Seeing all the things she has done to get here, he realizes that many times people in the U.S. take for granted opportunities others have to work hard for.
Vu, 21, has a minor in business and expects to graduate in May. Her visa allows her to work in the U.S. for a year after graduation. Right now she has two jobs, one with the Office of International Relations on campus and one at STEPS Family Resource Center in Fort Smith.
She said one of the strengths of the program is the networking opportunities it provides, but she also values the relationships she has developed with her mentors. When she has a decision about her future to make and she’s not sure what she should do, she can reach out to Lux, whom she describes as “smart and caring,” and know that he will help her talk through the issues. Pitsch, too, is available to help despite his busy schedule.
Goins says much of the work of the program falls to the students. They are supposed to reach out to one or both of their mentors at least once a month to schedule a one-hour meeting. The students set the agendas.
Goins helps students by sending out a monthly email with some suggested questions, but when the relationships are good, they bring their own questions to their mentors for advice.
Meetings might be held at a local coffee shop or at the executive mentor’s office. Recently Pitsch took his teammates to the state Capitol for a day to see the Legislature in action.
Lux said the day was wonderful and “eye-opening.” He was impressed by the sheer number of people who are involved in making state government run and the procedures required to get bills through committee meetings and then onto the House floor. Eventually, he learned to see “the method to the madness.”
Vu said she enjoyed the day, but mostly what it taught her was that politics is not a career she is interested in!
Pitsch echoed that, but not completely. When the year began, he said, Nina was not political. But he and Lux have worked to develop that in her, broadening her interests and expanding her horizons. They helped calm her nerves when she worried she wouldn’t be able to get a job off campus. It turned out that she had several opportunities and decided on the position with STEPS.
Pitsch said the relationship between mentor and mentee is reciprocal, with the mentors absorbing the student’s energy, but he tries to keep the emphasis on the student.
Most people have family to encourage them, and that’s good, he said. But a few words of encouragement from someone outside the family can be powerful.
“With young people, people 15 to 23 years old, when you tell them they are good at something, you can hardly stop them,” Pitsch said recently.
When asked what would show him the program was a success, Goins named two things: for a mentee to want to come back as a mentor, and for a graduate at a career crossroad to reach out to a mentor long after the program is over.
For the latter goal, Goins knows of one graduate of the program who started the job he thought he wanted but found himself miserable. Nine months after graduation, he reached out to his earlier mentor for advice, made a change, and felt better.
For the former, there is Nina Vu.
Her experience in the program has been everything she expected and more. She said it built her confidence and encouraged her to reach out for the future she wants.
She said she would love to have the chance to be a mentor because she wants things to be even better for students in the future.
“I want to be proud when I say I am from UAFS, so I have to participate in making it (even) better,” she said.