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Business pros give college students a peek at the real world

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October 8, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — The steadily increasing number of economics majors at Middlebury College unnerves Michael Claudon. There’s nothing wrong with economics as a discipline — Claudon himself is a professor of the subject, which claims 11.9 percent of all majors — but he gets the feeling that many students choose that path because they believe it is the only way into the business world, the only way they might land a well-paying job after graduation.

This is simply not true, Claudon said. And he’s prepared to prove it with his new winter term program, MIDD CORE (Creativity, Organization, Risk and Entrepreneurship), which aims to expose Middlebury students to professionals from both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors in an effort to deepen their understanding of the post-college world.

“The big picture is to help our students understand that there are all kinds of paths that you can follow to great careers and great personal lives,” Claudon said. “So whatever their passion is at the college — philosophy, Spanish, dance — they can pursue it.”

Instead of worrying, “How will I ever find a job in philosophy?” Claudon said, they can study what they love and then sign up for MIDD CORE and spend four weeks in January working with people who have found a way to turn their ideas into thriving businesses or organizations.

MIDD CORE, which grew out of Digital Bridges, a program Claudon began in 2000, was created under the auspices of the Project to Support Creativity and Innovation (PSCI), an effort the college launched last year to encourage all Middlebury students to expand their education beyond the classroom. 

“This is a course for everyone,” said Liz Robinson, director of PSCI. “What students sometimes don’t realize is that they all need a foundation in understanding organizations, because they’re all going to go out in the world and work with an organization.”

Already MIDD CORE has more than two dozen volunteer mentors, many of them Middlebury graduates. They are charged with presenting the students with real-life problems their organizations face.

“They may be environmental issues, ethical issues, certainly some will be business issues,” Claudon said. “In every case they are going to challenge the kids to take some risk.”

One week they might work with Molly Campbell, president of gourmet hamburger restaurants Beck’s Prime and a 1998 Middlebury graduate. She recently took over her family’s business and is looking for ways to expand the Texas chain.

“The week she’s here, the kids are going to solve this problem with her,” Claudon said. They will work on public speaking, risk-taking and collaboration.

Another week they might work with 1987 Middlebury graduate Nicholas Boillot, who heads Hart-Boillot LLC, a Massachusetts public relations and branding agency, and who helped develop MIDD CORE with Claudon.

Boillot pointed out that the program won’t benefit the students alone.

“As someone who hires new graduates, I think there are two sides to the equation that are important,” he said. “One is that often they don’t have the sort of basic understanding of how an organization functions.”

For employers like Boillot, this means spending a lot of time teaching new hires basic skills.

“The other factor is that they have trouble identifying where they would like to contribute,” he said. “You end up with people who are very talented, but they take the wrong sort of path.”

MIDD CORE has been working with the mentors to recruit a roster of winter-term and summer internships with their organizations that will be reserved for alumni of the program, to round out the hands-on experience.

Exposing students early on to the way an organization operates will be an invaluable part of their education, Boillot said, smoothing the transition from college to the working world for both students and their employers.

“I was an entrepreneur,” said Boillot, who majored in English at Middlebury. “As soon as I left college I started a business. If only I had had this kind of program, I would have avoided many pitfalls.”

But Claudon wants the students to learn about those pitfalls, too; maybe hear successful people say things like, “I did really stupid things. Could you believe I took that job?”

Most importantly, he wants them to learn to work together, something traditional college courses rarely emphasize.

“You get out of college into the real world and it’s mostly about teams and collaboration,” Claudon said. “There are very few careers/life paths, that involve you as the sole actor.”

And really, you don’t have to major in economics to succeed.

“Kids can follow their passion,” Claudon said. “There are great career opportunities out there. (Students) needn’t be anxious. We’re trying to supply that missing piece.”

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