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Career Moves: SPDC resources help Elon senior prepare for job at Volkswagen

With guidance from faculty and staff in the Student Professional Development Center, strategic communications and political science double major Baron Smith '14 combined his interest in marketing with a passion for cars to secure a position with Volkswagen Group of America's Graduate Program.

Elon University senior Baron Smith

Baron Smith first wanted to be an attorney. A native of Clemmons, N.C., just outside of Winston-Salem, Smith arrived at Elon University in the fall of 2010 as a pre-law student planning to take part in the campus Mock Trial team. Over time, however, and because of his internship experiences, Smith "shifted gears."

After deciding on a strategic communications and political science double major, Smith started thinking about career opportunities that would marry his love of cars with his interest in business and marketing operations. What he discovered was a two-year program hosted by Volkswagen Group of America that rotates him through various departments of the company.

He heads to California in June to begin his professional journey.

Smith is the final person to be featured during the 2013-14 academic year in a series of E-net profiles on the successes of students and alumni who have used the Student Professional Development Center to find job and internship openings, or to prepare for interviews and improve applications with guidance from staff.

He answered questions recently from the SPDC about his experience.

Tell me about the company and your role as an employee.

Volkswagen Group of America is Volkswagen Automotive Group’s U.S. subsidiary. On a global scale, Volkswagen is the ninth-largest company in the world, according to Fortune’s Global 500 list. In America, Volkswagen Group is home to the operations of five different brands - Volkswagen, Audi, Bentley, Bugatti and Lamborghini, in addition to Volkswagen Credit. My position is part of Volkswagen Group’s Graduate Program, which is a two-year program that provides extensive training, mentoring and networking through various roles and responsibilities in the organization. I will be working as region operations graduate analyst for Volkswagen’s Pacific region office in Woodland Hills, California. In this role I’ll rotate through various regional departments, such as dealer development and sales and marketing.

How did your interest in position or profession develop?

I’ve always been passionate about the automotive industry and cars in general, and have developed an interest in marketing and business operations through my internships. I wanted to combine my academic and personal interests in my career, so I researched opportunities in which I could do that. I learned about Volkswagen’s Graduate Program about a year and a half ago, and knew this was the ideal way for me to establish my career. I loved the opportunity this program provided through its rotational assignments and training, while also being able to work for a brand I have tremendous admiration for from growing up as a car enthusiast.

What have you learned from the experience?

I start my position in June, but I’ve been learning throughout the application process for this program. I think that having a definite goal, or even specific position in mind, while going through your undergraduate career can be a great personal motivator. I know I’d find myself thinking of this program after learning about it as a Junior, which motivated me to seek out new and challenging opportunities that would help me grow personally and expand my marketable skills. Some of the things I did more of included taking on more leadership roles on campus and doing an international internship in London. Since applying for the Graduate Program in December and making it through three rounds of interviews – including a two-day visit to Volkswagen Group’s U.S. headquarters in Herndon, Virginia, I’ve learned more about Volkswagen’s operations and corporate environment. I’ve spoken with former graduate program participants, current employees and even VW Group of America’s CEO, Michael Horn - all of which has only reinforced my desire to work for the company. I believe that a genuine passion for what you do is key in any position, and it will shine through and make you stand out in any interview.

Who did you work with in Student Professional Development Center, to prepare for your career, and what help did you receive?

I mainly worked with Jane Mehringer. I originally sought her advice on how to market myself as a non-business major when applying for marketing and business-related positions, as that’s where my career interests had shifted because of my internships and coursework. Her advice on structuring my resume and cover letter in particular helped boost my confidence in my fit for the role, and it also helped me figure out how to best present my past experience and communicate my passion for the industry and brand. She also provided me with contacts in the automotive sector, including at Volkswagen. All this led to me attend an info-session on campus about Volkwagen’s Graduate Program, which featured two HR employees that I ended up meeting in person during the interview days at Volkswagen’s U.S. headquarters.

How would you mentor other Elon students?

I would tell them to get involved with campus organizations or projects that interest them and be dedicated to their studies. I know that my experience as a team leader at Live Oak Communications helped shape my career goals and develop skills that I will use on the job, as did courses I had in marketing. I even developed key skills and close relationships from my involvement with Elon’s Mock Trial team. I developed skills in public speaking, critical analysis, teamwork and presentation through Mock Trial, all of which will benefit me in my career – even though I have no plans of being a lawyer. That relates to some other advice I’d give students – don’t be afraid of changing your plans or not being able to secure a job because you didn’t have a specific major. I started out as a pre-law student, then switched to strategic communications and political science, and am now going to work in corporate regional operations for an automaker. If you involve yourself in activities you enjoy and take on internships early, you will find out what areas truly interest you, and be able to reflect later on how your experiences have actually worked together to prepare you for a variety of opportunities.

What recommendations would you share with other students about the Student Professional Development Center?

I’d say pay attention to and take advantage of the events the center offers, as well as the advising they provide. Don’t be afraid to seek help from advisors outside of your current major, too, as they’re likely more than willing to help you figure out where you want to go and how to make that happen. Take advantage of these services early!

Which faculty members did you work with to prepare for your career/employment and what help did you receive?

Since I learned about Volkswagen’s Graduate Program during my junior year, I talked about it with a few professors. Both of my undergraduate research mentors, professors David Copeland and Lucinda Austin, have been so willing to help advise me beyond my academic research and answer any questions about my future career and plans. I even discovered a shared passion for cars with Dr. Copeland - turns out he’s a big Volkswagen fan, and we’ve discussed cars as well as academics on many occasions in and out of the classroom. I’m a big proponent of undergraduate research as well. I believe the analysis, composition and presentation skills I’ve gained from doing research, in addition to the relationships I’ve built with my mentors, has been invaluable in my personal and professional development. I’d recommend that any student at Elon take advantage of professors’ willingness to work with students on undergraduate research, and look into doing original research on a topic that interests them.

Eric Townsend,
5/22/2014 10:00 AM