From Class to Counselor: Alumni Mentor Students

Tom Marriott loves school.  In fact, he loves it so much, the 1968 BSChE alumnus even attends engineering class when visiting the University of Iowa from his home in Allentown, PA.  One that that has changed since Marriott attended Iowa, however, is that the College of Engineering now offers a mentoring program for students majoring in chemical engineering—a program Marriott launched during the 2012-13 academic year.  The sage and manufacturing/plant operations expert says that even though one of his former UI Engineering professors, Arthur Vetter, served as a generous academic mentor to him.

“It’s really interesting to sit in on a couple of classes now and then,” says Marriott. “And I’m happy to report that since I was in school, the laws of thermodynamics apparently haven’t changed much.”

The idea to start a formal mentoring program for students came to Marriott when he chaired the Chemical and Biochemical Engineering Advisory Board.

“When talking with students,” he says, “I discovered that they really didn’t have a solid idea of what being a chemical or biochemical engineer was all about. Especially at the sophomore level, they were so focused on getting through the tough curriculum, they weren’t thinking about ‘Should I go into process engineering? HR? Production or product engineering? Become an entrepreneur?’ After 30 years in the profession, I thought I—and other professional engineers—might be able to pass along a few things that could help them make those decisions.”

Marriott adds that today’s engineering student at Iowa gets excellent career advice from an array of College resources, including faculty members and professional development staff members.

The chemical engineering mentoring program simply provides one more facet to that array, enabling students to connect regularly with someone who currently works in the profession.

The program matches professional engineering mentors with student mentees who have expressed an interest in the same area of expertise. In a manuscript that appeared in the Proceedings of the 2014 ASEE North Midwest Section Conference held in Iowa City in October, Professor of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, David Murhammer describes the goals of the program as “interactively supplementing the students’ formal education with the mentor’s knowledge, experience, and counsel. This includes individualized help with career planning, resume preparation, interviewing savvy, internships, networking opportunities, lasting relationships and more.”

Mentoring matches are made in students’ sophomore year, when they have completed most of their general engineering requirements and must choose an “Elective Focus Area.” Mentors are encouraged to connect with their mentees at least three times during the sophomore year and to continue the relationship until—and perhaps even after—students graduate. The program may also lead to an opportunity for successful internships for the students, and if students’ employment prospects also are enhanced through their involvement with the program—“Well,” Marriott says, “that would be a terrific bonus.” Mariott’s own career began with Rohm and Haas, where he worked in a range of roles before joining Air Products in 1979.

While gaining extensive international operations and engineering experience at Air Products he also graduated from the Advanced Executive Program at Northwestern University in 1989. His 25-year career at Air Products took him to jobs in 14 countries in Asia, the South Pacific, Central and South America, and north and south Africa. After retiring from the firm in 2005, he launched a private consulting firm, Hawkeye Consulting Services.

“It’s easy for students to focus only on their lives as students in Iowa City,” Marriott says. “But they can learn so much from their mentors about the life of an engineer beyond college and around the world.”
Although only two years old, the mentoring program already has fulfilled that goal for dozens of chemical engineering students.

After gaining an enthusiastic go-ahead from then-department executive officer David Murhammer, Marriott invited advisory board members and alumni who had graduated at least ten years before to join the program. The initial invitation garnered 24 volunteers— fortuitously the same number of chemical engineering students who requested mentors. The following year, the program invited alumni who had graduated five or more years before, and an additional 20 engineers volunteered. So many new students wanted to join the program, however, some mentees, including Marriott, agreed to take on more than one student advisee. As the number of entering students continues to increase, Marriott is hoping even more alumni will join the mentoring team.

During past fall semester chemical and biochemical advisory board meetings, Marriott, fellow board member John Kessler, and a student in the program speak about the mentoring program to sophomores in the Process Calculations course taught by associate professor of chemical and biochemical engineering Julie Jessop. College of Engineering administrative services coordinator Katie Schnedler also lends her support to the program by maintaining the database of mentoring partners.

Fourth-year student leader Spencer Zook says Jessop’s strong encouragement helped him connect with retired Air Force colonel and Iowa City businessman Jerry Thorius (BSChE 1969). “I really enjoy our meetings,” says Zook, who will graduate in May.

“Jerry has provided insight into the wide range of career paths that my major can open. I recommend the program to any student who wants to learn more about the real-world applications of engineering.”

Of the 53 alumni who have committed to be mentors, only a few work in the Iowa City area, so many of the mentoring relationships take place by phone, email, or even social media. Marriott encourages mentors who visit Iowa City for Homecoming, advisory board meetings, or business to arrange face-to-face meetings with their student mentees.

“I hope alumni from other departments will consider this mentoring program as a model for success,” Murhammer says. “Of course, we’ve been particularly fortunate that Tom has taken the initiative and been willing to organize and support the program.”

Marriott adds that he expects the program to continue for years to come. “I just signed up six more alumni as mentors,” he says. “And I really enjoy facilitating the program. I’m retired, I love the University of Iowa, and I wanted to give back. This is one way for me to do just that.”