Professional Development Seminar

President Cochran speaking to students

Professional Development Seminar

When SMC freshman Austin Hinkle ’18 went to a meeting with a local financial planner to talk about starting a retirement account, he remembered what he’d learned in his Professional Development Seminar: most people form an impression within seven seconds of meeting someone new. He dressed nicely, gave a solid handshake and made eye contact as he introduced himself. Throughout the meeting, he listened attentively, took notes and asked questions from a prepared list.

Freshman Austin Hinkle, a Professional Development Seminar participant, already has two job offers following graduation.

A day or two later, he got a phone call from the financial planner, who offered him a paid internship. “He told me how impressed he was that I handled myself so well during our meeting,” says Hinkle. The Spartanburg High graduate is now getting paid to learn financial planning. If things go well, the internship could turn into a full-time job after graduation.

If that sounds impressive, there’s more: this wasn’t Hinkle’s first job offer. The company he’s worked part-time for since high school is not only willing to employ him after graduation, but to also pay for college if he’ll sign a contract committing to work for them when he completes his degree.

“So here’s this freshman in college with two job offers on the table,” muses President Scott Cochran, who teaches the college’s new Professional Development Seminar to Hinkle and 35 other students. “He can basically write his own ticket. That’s unusual for someone his age, but anyone who knows Austin understands that he’s smart, motivated and willing to hustle.”

“Hustle,” which used to evoke the ’70s-era dance or a con artist’s game, is a name given in the professional world to hard work that moves you toward your goal. Call it hustle, drive, grit or whatever you like, Cochran says, but it’s one of the top characteristics shared by successful people in any field. “It doesn’t matter if you work for a bank, a museum, a hospital or even for yourself. The people who are real successes know how to work hard.”

Students in Cochran’s seminar hustle just to participate in the class, which is offered at 8 a.m. – a time when many students would rather be sleeping – and does not carry any course credit (it also doesn’t cost them anything). “We thought we’d be lucky to get 15 students at that hour and with nothing to gain on their transcripts,” jokes Courtney Shelton, Vice President for Professional Development and Design and co-instructor for the seminar. “When 38 showed up on the first day, we were blown away. And to get beyond the midpoint of the semester and only seeing two drop out is way beyond our expectations.”

One reason the class filled up was Briana Clark, women’s basketball coach, who challenged her entire team of 21 students to take the seminar. “I told them if they didn’t like it, they could drop it,” Clark says. All 16 of the students who went to the first session decided to remain in the course. “Young adults need to understand how to present themselves and the group they’re representing with professionalism,” Clark explains.

“I also believe that even in a team setting, everyone has the capability to be a strong leader. Sometimes they just need to know where and how to begin.” – Coach Briana Clark

Clark has seen an immediate change in her students. Quiet and reserved women have begun speaking up. Fist bumps have been replaced by firm handshakes and strong eye contact. Posture, confidence, focus and attention to detail have all improved. “These may seem like little things, but they’ll not only help them in their future endeavors, but have already helped them on the basketball court,” notes Clark.

Sophomore Yazmeen Young, a forward on the women’s basketball team, has embraced leadership on and off the court.

One student who has made a significant change is Yazmeen Young, a sophomore forward from Greenville, South Carolina. Clark noticed that Young, always a strong leader by example through the manners, positive outlook and hard work she displayed on the court, has begun addressing her teammates directly when they step out of line. “Her confidence and comfort level with her own leadership ability has skyrocketed,” Clark says. “The seminar is helping Yazmeen, and many of her teammates, realize that their voices and opinions are important and should be shared.”

“I can tell a difference in myself, in my classes and feeling ready to further my career when I leave SMC,” says Young. “I’m excited about work now and ready for it.” Young is scheduled to begin an internship with a local chiropractor who specializes in sports medicine, a career area she hopes to pursue after SMC.

Each seminar meeting begins with a “leadership moment,” delivered by Cochran, which examines a real-world example of a poor decision made in the workplace and its impact. From there, students spend time learning specific topics such as personal brand, success factors, teamwork and design thinking. The students are also engaged in a consulting project, which involves framing a problem, conducting research and developing realistic solutions. “Problem solving is a constant in every workplace,” Cochran stresses. “Students who go into their first jobs already able to work efficiently as part of a team to identify, understand and solve a problem will have a significant advantage over their colleagues who haven’t had this kind of training.”

As the semester begins to wind down, seminar participants are busy preparing to present the results of their consulting project to the entire campus community. Since early September, working in teams of six students under Shelton’s direction, they’ve studied the problem of how to make the campus more enjoyable for students on the weekends. To complete the project, they’ve learned how to identify team member strengths, assign tasks based on those strengths, conduct interviews with a variety of campus constituencies (including faculty, staff and students of different class years) and compile research results so that similarities in data among the groups can be identified.

“They’ve done most of this work outside of the seminar class, on their own time, in addition to their normal classwork, part-time jobs and social activities,” says Shelton. “One of the big discoveries has been that some campus policies may be inadvertently working against creating a desirable weekend atmosphere.”

As part of their work, the students must develop realistic ideas for solving the problem, as well as the steps necessary to implement their ideas, says Shelton. “Their solutions have to be based on research, not just ‘wouldn’t it be cool if.’ I’m really looking forward to seeing what they come up with.”

The seminar has been so successful and the changes so apparent in the participants that Cochran and Shelton are planning to offer the class again in the spring semester, at the same time and not for credit. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see students go from slouching in their chairs and not taking the class seriously to now hanging on every word and writing pages of notes every class. They’re getting it,” says Shelton.

“We’re looking at how we can expand the class to make it available to more students,” Cochran says. “Can we do it on a Tuesday and Thursday or make it part of Orientation? Ultimately, we want every SMC student to learn these skills and behaviors as part of their degree.”

Courtney Shelton, Vice President for Professional Development and Design (seated in chair) leads a discussion with new SMC students in the Ballard Center.
Courtney Shelton, Vice President for Professional Development and Design (seated in chair) leads a discussion with new SMC students in the Ballard Center.