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Better than the Ivy League


Raqule Whited (coming off steps at right) and fellow classmates toured more than a dozen European corporations.

by Mary Niehaus

Being in the wrong place at the right time sometimes turns out very well. Eric Mersmann, BusAd '02, jokes that he got into UC's Carl H. Lindner Honors-PLUS program by accident, but calls it the "definitive experience" of his time at the University of Cincinnati.

As a business honors freshman, Mersmann found himself unexpectedly with the Honors-PLUS group during the 1997 college orientation. Instead of booting him out of the meeting, CBA's enrollment manager Scott Gregory talked with him about the brand new five-year intensive business program -- its demanding curriculum, seven quarters of co-op, international study, extensive leadership training and generous tuition scholarship.

"By the end of the day, they were offering me a spot in Honors-PLUS," Mersmann says. "I lived in honors housing on campus, which led to getting interested in joining the UC rowing team." The rowers club benefited from his enthusiasm, ability in intercollegiate competition and skills as team treasurer.

Eric realizes how different his life might be had he not stumbled upon Honors-PLUS. "It changed so many things for me, opened up so many doors, showed me a lot of options."

At no time was that more clear than during the junior-year Honors-PLUS European study trip: Two weeks at a business school in Nantes, France. Living with local families. Visits with French and U.S. business executives in Paris and Brussels. Entry to international organizations, such as NATO. He even managed to squeeze in a rowing adventure with friends he met in Europe.

Honors-PLUS connections also opened doors closer to home, snaring Eric a six-month co-op assignment at Wizards of the Coast, the industry leader in hobby gaming, where he conducted "playtests" and focus groups for products and participated in game development. Today, Mersmann is enrolled in the University of Chicago law school, where he "blew them away" with his high entrance exam score, says Jeri Ricketts, director of the Honors-PLUS program.

Another graduate of the inaugural class of Honors-PLUS is pursuing his future at the investment banking giant Credit Suisse First Boston, Manhattan. After two stints as a Goldman Sachs co-op on Wall Street, Adam VeVerka found his ideal starting position in information technology.

For recent grad Eric Mersmann (second rower from the front), Honors-PLUS led to joining the UC rowing club, which, in turn, nurtured leadership skills.

For recent grad Eric Mersmann (second rower from the front), Honors-PLUS led to joining the UC rowing club, which, in turn, nurtured leadership skills.

Course work in the Honors-PLUS program, VeVerka says, felt more "personable," something one might expect from an Ivy League school. He also liked being part of a group that learned to grow and work well together. Those are qualities the program's designers definitely intended.

"It's mandatory that the Honors-PLUS students all live in the dorms together their freshman year and that they move through the program together, so they really get to know each other and build a team," Ricketts confirms. "That is very powerful. You create so much synergy that way."

That is one reason the director is surprised that after five years in operation the Honors-PLUS model has not been duplicated in other business schools. The UC program remains unique.

"You may find a program with business honors that has an opportunity for study abroad, or a guest speaker series, or a single summer internship," she says. "You don't find a program that has all we offer, in one place.
"Furthermore, one thing we have that others can't copy is our co-op infrastructure," Ricketts believes. "That is such an important part of our program."

VeVerka's comment about an "Ivy League" feeling resonates with adviser Norman Baker, who founded Honors-PLUS and was its director until his retirement earlier this year. A Stanford professor called a UC colleague to find out how Honors-PLUS was managing to take students away from them, Baker recalls.

Considering the program's relatively brief history, Baker says the Honors-PLUS has actually exceeded his expectations. "Student leadership on campus and contributions to the community have developed more quickly and been at a higher level than I thought possible in the first five years," he says. For example:

• Mindy Giehls, BusAd '02, and Adam VeVerka started a campus organization after co-oping at SparkPeople, a business founded by UC business alumnus Chris Downie to teach personal leadership and goal setting. The students were inspired to co-found SparkPeople Campus, adapting the leadership development system as a personal balance tool for students. Giehls is now a full-time employee with SparkPeople Service's not-for-profit foundation.

• Ami Rawal, BusAd '01, and Giehls were the first two persons to complete a new volunteer leadership development program offered by the United Way & Community Chest to prepare individuals to be effective non-profit board members. Both are now serving on community boards. Rawal, one of a handful of Honors-PLUS students who graduated early through advanced placement credit and heavy course loads, is working with her former co-op employer, Procter & Gamble, as an assistant brand manager.

• Stephen Lett, BusAd '02, began training 100 teenage students in a special Microsoft skills certification program last year after he and a friend created the Inexpensive Computer Solutions (ICS) Computer Learning and Ownership Foundation. The initial training project was funded by the city of Cincinnati, and this summer the partners received another grant to train up to 30 students who live outside the city. Lett works at Procter & Gamble as a systems analyst.

Baker is pleased by the quality of positions the Honors-PLUS graduates have obtained. Nearly all are working in Greater Cincinnati, many at companies where they co-oped. One of the original goals of the program was to develop a local talent base by keeping the best business students in the area.

"The median salary for the graduates is $46,400," Baker notes, "with a range from $38-$60,000. Several also received signing bonuses. Overall, the program has led them to excellent jobs, both co-op and permanent. It opened doors and provided training for community involvement. It developed their leadership skills and made them grow as individuals, especially regarding their confidence to experience new things.

"As I traveled with the undergraduates on the European study trips, they seemed to mature along the way," he says. "For most of them, Honors-PLUS was a life-changing experience."

UC's Honors-PLUS program and application