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Greenville Business Magazine

Mentoring Program Boosts Furman Students

Sep 05, 2018 12:59PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By AnnaMarie Koehler-Shepley

Furman University is known for its solid liberal arts education, but a recent initiative is putting this South Carolina school on the map for what it can do for students outside of the classroom and into their futures.

The Furman Advantage launched in October 2016 and is a four-year pathway that focuses heavily on not only providing experiential learning opportunities to every student but also tracking their progress through specially-designed software. The program was brought on under the leadership of Furman President Elizabeth Davis, who is now in her fifth year.

The initiative was born out of both necessity and research: as the collegiate tide has shifted away from favoring a liberal arts foundation and is now more than ever focused on pre-professional preparedness, the University commissioned research firm Art & Science Group to look to at their market position and enrollment numbers to see where there was room for improvement. The findings revealed a necessity for a guaranteed real-world experience component to attract and retain students.

To determine exactly what that would look like, Furman looked at findings from a report from Purdue University and Gallup, aptly titled the Gallup-Purdue Index. The report explored the correlation between the types of undergraduate experiences students had with their later engagement in work and general well-being.

Many of the most important factors for later success and engagement were related to having strong relationships with professors and mentors and gaining hands-on experience beyond the classroom.

David Ellison, a ’72 alumnus who has been a member of the Board of Trustees for more than two decades, knows firsthand how impactful a mentor can be on a student. Ellison, who lost his father during his junior year at Furman, relied heavily on the support and encouragement of his mentor, Schaefer Kendrick. Their bond was so strong that he was later in his wedding party.

“I went to him if I needed advice from someone who was a lot more mature and wiser than I was; he’s the person I went to... All he cared about was me, and there was no agenda other than, ‘Let’s help Dave Ellison with whatever issue he’s got,’” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to pay forward.”

Ellison is a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual and held the managing director position in the Greenville office from 1983 until 2010. Throughout his career, he has dedicated a lot of energy to making connections for students and helping them find opportunities in the business community.

“I was de facto doing The Furman Advantage for many years,” Ellison said. “I was recruiting Furman interns, hiring Furman graduates, and connecting Furman students with other contacts. If someone wasn’t a candidate for a financial career, then we would refer them to someone else in Greenville because we have a lot of contacts here. Effectively it was The Furman Advantage years before it formally became a college-wide Furman program.”

The Furman Advantage initiative was funded with $47 million from The Duke Endowment, of which Furman, along with Davidson College, Duke University, and Johnson C. Smith University, is a beneficiary. Of the $47 million Furman received, $22.5 million went towards full-tuition scholarships for incoming freshmen and the remaining $25 million went towards developing The Furman Advantage.

Specifically, those millions went towards funding for student internships and research opportunities, developing a whole new IT infrastructure to track students’ progress, professional development for faculty members to foster a community of mentorship, and whatever remained was designated for needs not yet identified.

While the program is only in the beginning stages of its second year, it’s already become an attractive perk for incoming students. Ellison says that the Furman Advantage, along with Furman’s location in Greenville, are huge perks of choosing the university.

“We’re really lucky to be where we are; it’s a huge advantage to be in Greenville,” Ellison said.

Along with its prime location in downtown Greenville (which was recently listed as the No. 3 small town to visit by Conde Nast’s Traveler), Furman’s relationship with the medical school at nearby University of South Carolina - Greenville is very enticing to prospective students. With 40 percent of incoming freshman expressing an interest in the healthcare field, Ellison said, this is a great selling point.

“A Liberal arts education is evolving at Furman,” Ellison said. “The Furman Advantage allows students to graduate with a broad education: they can collaborate, they can communicate well, and are broad in their thinking and ability to grow in their profession.”

Overall, the main goal of the program is to leave Furman graduates with a comprehensive college education that prepares them not only for work, but for life ahead.

“I think the Furman advantage can signify to prospective students that you get the best of both worlds: you’re going to get all these other opportunities on top of a very solid education that will prepare you not only to get a job initially, but to grow and gain more financial security along with making an impact in your community,” Ellison said.