A focus on success! What makes Merrimack students stand out?
In a summer message to the Merrimack community, President Christopher E. Hopey announced that Money Magazine had just named the college a “Value All Star” for adding value to graduates’ degrees. “Merrimack is a school that prepares students for professional and economic success,” he said, citing “many efforts, by departments and individuals across this campus, to ensure that Merrimack students are ready to thrive on day one post-graduation.”
Here is the story of those efforts and the people — faculty, staff, but in the main, driven and forward-looking students — who are both the embodiment and the beneficiaries of Merrimack’s core focus on success.
In the wake of the Second World War, a Merrimack Valley labor-management committee — under the auspices of the federal Manpower Commission — began looking at ways to revive industry and speed the return of American servicemen into the workforce. Committee members quickly realized higher education was the key to economic growth, and toured educational institutions in Greater Boston with an eye to luring a satellite campus north. Ultimately they found an ally in Archbishop Richard Cushing, who reached out to the Augustinians, then an order with a hundred-year history of teaching and ministering in the region.
Out of that drive to restore economic vitality Merrimack College was born in 1947. More than 160 freshmen — and they were all men — commuted to the initial classes in a single cinderblock building, most of them military veterans and most of them studying business administration, with a healthy dose of liberal arts students as well.
In 2014, Merrimack has nearly 3,000 undergraduates — more than half of them women — and several hundred graduate students, 30 buildings and a growing national reputation based in its institutional momentum and its intense focus on student success. The college’s four schools — its original business and liberal arts faculties now matched by schools of science and engineering and of education and social policy, offering 90 academic programs — continue to graduate well-rounded students, but with an even sharper eye on Merrimack’s original mission: preparing young people to stand out as they embark on careers in a growing global economy.
Students seize the moment
“Helping students understand, and then articulate, their value to employers and graduate schools prepares them to navigate not only their first job search but their fifth,” said Heather Maietta, associate vice president and director of the O’Brien Center for Student Success.
The college’s “wraparound support,” from academic courses to faculty advising to student support centers such as the O’Brien, has shown startling results: 98% of the Class of 2013 reported being employed or in graduate school nine months after commencement, according to a survey of the class with an 85% response rate. Merrimack students across majors can find help in the Compass Program or the Math or Writing Center. Education students link theory and practice in local schools. Science and engineering faculty identify clinical and internship placements for their charges. Business students transition from the new Bloomberg Markets Lab in the Academic Innovation Center to jobs in high finance. Communications majors learn about turning themselves into their own brands for the job market. The O’Brien Center helps with building this brand, interview preparation and job searches. And students bound for success find themselves taking every opportunity presented and then creating more on their own.
“I think that I, as a person, took the main initiative” in seeking her internship with Puma’s North American human resources operation, said senior Casey Duggan.
The Weymouth, Mass., native, a psychology major with a minor in health sciences, drew strength and skills from her work with the O’Brien Center and advice from her internship advisor, associate professor Christina Hardway, who was “thrilled” when Duggan landed the prestigious placement
The internship not only gave her academic credit but a close-up view of employee disciplinary and corrective practices. “I’ve learned a lot,” she said. “Primarily I’ve learned that even such a big company — an elite company — still has performance management issues, but they know how to properly overcome these issues to remain an elite brand.”
Though she has longer-term plans to go to graduate school, she hopes to land full-time at Puma next year to continue her real-world education in industrial and organizational psychology. She cited the help of Stephen Maser, associate director for employer relations at the O’Brien Center, in preparing for her internship interview, and the center staff overall for its work with students. She was part of that work, as a peer advisor at O’Brien, helping fellow students with resumes and cover letters and booking appointments.
The O’Brien center, she said, is “a real asset for the college.”
The confident Andover, Mass. native came to the college after graduating high school at 17 and moving to California to try to make it on the professional tennis circuit. That may have been his last misstep, but he used his experience “as a vehicle to get into Merrimack,” where he has been captain of the tennis team and 2014 male scholar-athlete of the year, as well as finance editor of The Beacon.
Bellino connected with the O’Brien center in his freshman year for help with interview preparation, among other things. “They gave me the expertise to mold my story, to build my personal brand,” he said.
At the Girard School of Business, management professor Jane Parent used her connections to help him line up an internship with Putnam Investments, the first of four placements he has found as a student (Beacon Health Strategies, investment banker Philpott Ball & Werner, and private equity firm Century Capital round out the quartet). He also took inspiration from accounting and finance professor Mary Papazian. “She knows the lay of the land,” he said. “She’s been on the trading floor.”
Ultimately, Bellino — a commuter who has, through scholarships and work, funded his Merrimack education — feels he was well suited to find and use the resources the college has to offer.
“I feel I’m pretty self-driving,” he said.
Senior Kelly Ottaviano found her own drive to succeed as an athlete rewarding. Through her sophomore year, the communications major/economics minor was on a synchronized figure skating team that competed across North America and Europe. “It was very demanding,” she said, sometimes pulling her out of classes for a week at a time. She decided she had to “refocus on my future after college,” and reached out to the O’Brien Center after a career counselor make a presentation about summer internships in one of her classes.
Ottaviano, from Reading, Mass., landed an exciting placement on the sports desk Boston’s WBZ TV, and then, with Maser’s help, aggressively pursued an internship with startup Gamma Medica in Salem, N.H., which provides molecular breast-imaging equipment.
“I was a marketing intern,” said Ottaviano. She “qualified” leads for the marketing staff, then helped create a social media strategy to drive traffic to Gamma’s website. “We increased Twitter followers by 1,000,” she said. “I left having actually accomplished something.”
The support of the O’Brien Center, she said, was matched by the practical skills she picked up in classes with communications professors Andrew Tollison, who teaches conflict management, and Matthew Isbell, who runs the senior seminar that focuses on job-search preparation. “It’s so helpful — every major should have one,” she said.
Securing those internships, she said, “pretty much saved me. They guided me. I feel a lot more ready to graduate and go to work.”
For senior Tsyren Ulzetuev, a health sciences major from Siberia, it can feel like he’s already stepped into his chosen profession. “I want to be a doctor,” he said. “I want to become a surgeon.” And Ulzetuev is interning at Lawrence General Hospital, “observing surgeon and patient interactions” in the emergency department.
His earlier internship, with biopharmaceutical giant Pfizer, arose through cooperation between health sciences internship advisor Kevin Finn and the O’Brien Center. “I was a research assistant in assays,” he said. “There were four of us from Merrimack working there over the summer. O’Brien was very helpful, and I love my professors.”
Fellow Pfizer intern Zachary Sears, a junior biology major from Wilmington, Mass., worked in “the purification process department, testing new technology” that might help create a cancer-fighting drug. Like Ulzetuev, he hopes to apply to medical school, and also like his fellow Pfizer alum, he credits the seamless connection between his faculty and the O’Brien Center for helping him find the pharmaceutical internship.
“Dr. (Mark) Birnbaum,” who chairs the biology department, “he pushed it. He said it would be a great experience,” said Sears, who then attended a career session with O’Brien associate director Lori Dameron. “The career class was awesome,” he said.
“I realized I’d not been prepared — it was super helpful for me.”
Sears said Merrimack’s academic environment was perfect for him and his future plans. “Because of the small class sizes, faculty really get to know you,” he said. “And the classes themselves are pretty practical. I’ve loved them.”
Making college work better for all students has been the focus of Tia Roy, a senior psychology major and communication minor who has built a research expertise out of her undergraduate courses, jobs and internships. The Haverhill, Mass., commuter student who was instrumental in the creation of Generation Merr1mack, studies the concerns of first-generation college students and proposes support mechanisms. Together, she and the O’Brien Center’s Maietta have presented to national organizations on the specific concerns of students who are the first in their families to go to college, and how to help them succeed.
That path began when Roy, a certified nursing assistant from Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School and herself a first-generation collegian, applied for a peer advisor position at O’Brien because she needed a job. She bootstrapped that job, and her close connection with the O’Brien, into internships with the North Andover Housing Authority, CLASS Inc. in Lawrence, and her old high school, Whittier, picking up skills and knowledge but also boosting the confidence she felt she lacked as a “first gen” who couldn’t turn to anyone in her family for practical help with college.
For her, finding the O’Brien Center — and relying on the Academic Enrichment Center and Writing Center — was how she not only found her internships, but her way to success.
“All of us need to ask ourselves: How do I step up my game?” Roy said. “You need to be connecting with someone. It really is all about making it your Merrimack — you find someone, be it a professor or an administrator, and utilize that person as a mentor.”
Faculty focus on the practical
Matthew Isbell, the assistant professor of communication arts and sciences who leads his department’s senior seminar, works closely with the O’Brien Center to turn his required senior course into a job-search boot camp of sorts.
“How you come to know yourself — that’s a difficult, reflective process,” said Isbell. Students have to look inward for who they are, and then decision “what they want to be next.” That’s the underpinning of his capstone course: turning well-educated students into well-versed applicants for jobs or graduate schools. That is well embedded in the context of learning communication theory and skills: “Creation of a brand is a narrative event,” he said.
His students “create content” about themselves: personal statements, professional resumes, cover letters, outlines for targeted job searches, even an appropriate social media presence, including LinkedIn profiles and a serious inventory of their other online activities, with an eye to things that prospective employers might view positively or negatively.
“It should all blend with who they see themselves as,” Isbell said. “They learn to create and control their brand, gauge themselves.”
The course also covers such matters as how to network, how to explain what a “communicator” is, and how to pitch themselves in the classic “elevator speech.” Like the O’Brien Center, whose advisors Isbell requires students to meet with, he drills on interview techniques, both face-to-face and by Skype. “It’s really formalizing a process we had long hoped our students would do organically,” he said.
Faculty across the college work to link curricula with the “real world,” and then help their students make that transition. Kevin Finn, who assisted Zachary Sears in landing his Pfizer internship, said the School of Science and Engineering places “a strong emphasis on providing students with not only the knowledge in the classroom but also the hands-on, practical skills needed in their discipline.”
An associate professor of health sciences, who teaches and actively researches in his field of athletic training, Finn noted that the school provides “a variety of experiential learning opportunities such as internships, externships, clinical experiences, and directed research,” giving students “valuable, real-world experiences where they apply the content from their courses in a variety of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) settings.
“We feel that these out-of-class opportunities are what make our students successful when they enter graduate school or the job market,” he said.
Dan Butin, dean of the School of Education and Social Policy, said his school bases its programs on the critical link between theory and practice, “through field based experiences such as internships, service-learning, and student teaching experiences.”
“We very consciously focus on scaffolding student experiences —beginning in the freshman year with shorter visits and smaller responsibilities or shadowing opportunities — that build up by the senior year to semester-long experiences such as a capstone or student teaching,” he said. “We help students break through and step outside of their textbook covers and the four walls of the college classroom.”
The result: job-ready graduates. Merrimack teacher education students work in more than two dozen schools and school systems in the Merrimack Valley during their degree programs; grads have a 93% pass rate on the Massachusetts teacher licensure test, Butin pointed out.
Said the O’Brien Center’s Maietta: “It is our job as an institution to not only educate students academically, but also connect them to experiential learning opportunities — coops, internships, research, service. These opportunities enhance academic learning, help students make sense of real world challenges and possibilities, and enable them to make well-informed personal and professional decisions.“
That Merrimack has an impressive recipe for student success seems almost self-evident to the faculty, staff and students who work hard to produce these results. The reviewers, like Money Magazine, see the value. But what about the ultimate critics — the hiring managers at big firms and international corporations whose decisions ultimately mean more than all the rankings?
“We find that Merrimack students have a solid foundation in the engineering sciences to get quickly established inside of Teradyne,” said Steven Conte, an engineering support manager with the world leader in electronic testing equipment.
The North Reading, Mass.-based Teradyne has been relying on Merrimack engineering and computer-science students for internships for “quite some time,” Conte said, and then offering full-time work to graduating stars.
“They quickly acclimate to the engineering discipline, be it software testing, product development, or hardware design that they are assigned to,” Conte said. “With this foundation, we are able to enhance the students’ skill set by offering them additional learning opportunities while on the job. “
A four- to six-month internship is essentially treated as an extended job interview, he noted, as well as “helping us shape and grow the student’s ability.” The process is “a tremendous value to us as an employer. New college graduates are able to be productive from the start of their employment, and achieve greater success in their career growth.”
The college’s relationship with BAE Systems, a global provider of defense and security products, stretches back 53 years, said finance manager Chad Theroux — specifically, the recruitment and hiring of business students for BAE’s Financial Leadership Development Program.
When Merrimack students “arrive at BAE Systems, they have learned the key concepts required to succeed in a corporate environment and add value to our organization,” Theroux said. “Students from Merrimack College come prepared with business acumen and a strong work ethic.”
Having interned, he said, is critical for job candidates at the Nashua, N.H.-based company. “This helps to ensure that the student has hands-on experience and understanding of what it takes to be successful upon college graduation in the workforce.”
As the magazine went to press, CitiBank weighed in with a ringing endorsement as well. Bellino, the business major from Andover, has his first post-graduation job lined up, with that global banking leader in Manhattan.
His personal brand — and Merrimack’s — continues its rise.