Fat over Lean
October 13, 2020
October 13, 2020
A bundle of nerves and excited energy, Mattie Mint ’22 boarded a plane by herself for the first time. She had just completed her first year of college at Southwestern University and was in the process of entering a new chapter of her life. She had braved the airport’s layover and conquered baggage claim. She managed to find her Uber even though she had never used one before. Despite so many firsts and so many stressful times, Mint did it all with an open heart and mind. “I loved it,” she recalls. “I felt like I was on a grand adventure and like my life [was] starting right now.” In some ways, she was. She had arrived in Chicago.
The Uber drove out of the airport, through the suburbs, and into a tunnel. The tunnel opened up, and the city filled her vision. The lights from all the buildings and skyscrapers lit up the night sky like a Christmas tree. She didn’t think it would hit her so hard since she had grown up in Dallas and Houston. But driving through and seeing the Windy City for the first time took her breath away.
“There was something about Chicago. It was just so big! You got the waterway, and then you got the walkway, and then the buses that run through the city, so it’s just layers upon layers of people and bikes, and it’s so big!” she says with eyes lit and a wide smile.
The next morning, she woke not quite knowing where she was for a second. She rushed over to the window, threw the curtains open, and exclaimed, “Oh my god, I’m in Chicagooo!” That day, Mint explored what the city had to offer, going downtown and venturing into donut shops. It was one of the best days of her life. It was a time that breathed inspiration and productivity. She was making her own path, and none of that could’ve happened without the Kemper Scholars Program.
The Chicago-based Kemper Scholars Program is a sophomore-to-senior-year scholarship and internship program that “helps high-potential college students acquire the practical and professional skills needed to successfully launch business careers.” It offers a wide variety of internships with organizations that are chosen for their capability to provide serious project-oriented work for the scholars.
There are two tiers of internships: one community based and the other business related. The first one, in which rising juniors complete an internship with a nonprofit, provides mentorship and the opportunity to develop career skills. The second is a paid business internship with a for-profit organization in which Scholars learn skills such as work ethic, teamwork, and persistence. The program is available to only select universities that nominate students who are willing to learn anything and everything needed to brave a business path with confidence.
Mint is a Kemper Scholar junior attending Southwestern, one of the colleges included in this exclusive program, and has just completed her first internship with the Metropolitan Planning Council. As with so many internship and scholarship opportunities, the Kemper program was affected by the pandemic. Nonetheless, Mint has thrived under the leadership and guidance provided by her Kemper mentors.
An unexpected path
Mint is an art major and business minor, but she would not have been—nor would she be a Kemper Scholar—if she had not sat next to Associate Professor of Business Debika Sihi during one of Southwestern’s many alumni and professional-development dinners. “That lady changed my life,” she says with a sigh and a huge smile on her face.
During her first year, Mint’s love of painting drew her to a fine-arts advisor even though she started on the premed track. She had decided that she would paint on the side and focus on making it through the checkpoints toward medical school, but she didn’t feel completely comfortable pursuing that direction. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt lost, but I needed to trust my intuition,” she says. “I did know that premed wasn’t going to work out, that that track was not my path to take.” Thankfully, Southwestern encourages self-exploration, so Mint found herself attending an alumni dinner that aided students in finding career paths that fit their needs. Sihi sat next to her that evening, getting to know all her dreams, wants, and aspirations. They talked the entire night, leaving Mint feeling less hopeless than before.
In fact, that dinner and seating arrangement would go on to be one of her most cherished college memories. “She made me feel better about what I was doing,” she remembers. “After that dinner, [Dr. Sihi] reached out to me by email and said, ‘I just really like the way you presented yourself, and I really liked talking to you, and I think you’d be a great candidate for this program!’” Mint was floored. This business-related program was not in her lane, yet there she was, being recruited for it by one of the committee members herself.
Mint’s advisors in fine arts were not as familiar with the Kemper program given its business focus; regardless, she says, “they were very behind my decision because they knew I was kind of stuck.” And luckily, Southwestern offers wide-ranging degree plans to fit a person’s needs. After leaving the premed pathway, Mint could focus on what she truly enjoyed. Art and business would give her education the intellectual depth and scope that fit her personal and professional interests.
And even beyond minoring in business, Sihi knew exactly what path Mint was meant for and guided her in the right direction.
Giving credit where credit’s due
The qualifying process for the Kemper program is rigorous. The foundation chooses 12 to 15 students from the colleges involved, usually 2 students per college. Faculty select approximately 100 first-year students, who then have the option of completing an application; normally, about 50 students will do so. Then, 10 out of the 50 are chosen as semifinalists to be interviewed by the college Kemper Scholars Program committee. Next, 4 out of the 10 finalists are chosen by the committee to be interviewed by Jerry Fuller, the Kemper Foundation director and president, who then selects the Kemper Scholar cohort class.
Each step is a challenging process, yet Mint managed to excel in all of them. “It was very unlikely that I would get the Kemper scholarship. It blew my mind that I did because I was up against people who were studying economics and finance, against my friends who have been on the business track since they started college,” Mint explains.
“I had little sprinkles of experience in a lot of different areas, and I think that was my deciding factor to get into the program.”
When asked how Mint did manage to land this amazing opportunity, she gives all the credit back to Southwestern. “The fact I got the Kemper scholarship and the fact I got into the Kemper Scholars Program is indicative of the Southwestern ‘motto’,” she air quotes. “It’s a liberal-arts school, so I had little sprinkles of experience in a lot of different [areas], and I think that was my deciding factor to get into the program. I was good at not one thing but a lot of little things, and that has honestly helped me throughout … my career and all my internships. The fact [that] I’m an artist and can sort of switch from my analytical brain to my more creative side comes in so handy, and that’s been curated by Southwestern University. They really helped me hone my own ability to switch between multiple disciplines.”
It was one of the reasons why Mint chose to attend Southwestern in the first place. The liberal-arts education offered is focused on curious students who are willing to explore, who don’t quite know where their journey will take them but are willing to go on it anyway. And the professors are guides for that journey. As Sihi did for Mint, the faculty want to help students individually—one of the many benefits of attending a small school. That was what drew Mint in. “What stood out to me was that [SU] is small, and that’s one of their key marketing factors: ‘We’re small, so you’re child won’t be a number; they’ll be known by their name,’” she comments. “But seriously, as much as I joke about that, I needed that. I needed to have a personal relationship with my professors because I know myself, and I’m a much stronger student [when I] form a connection via face to face in person than I am on paper.”
Summer of uncertainty
When the world was hit with the first wave of the pandemic and schools and businesses shut down, the Kemper Foundation also had to shut its doors to any incoming cohort, but the students already in the program were stuck in an awkward position. “When I got inducted to the program,” she recalls,“they flew us out to Chicago, and I got to meet [my cohort] face to face, and oh my goodness, [it was] such a good time.” But Mint stops to sigh as she thinks about this past summer. “The program was weird this summer,” she admits.“Once everything went to a standstill, the program wasn’t reaching out to these internships and helping us with the connection. It was all on our own, which was really hard … Some of my friends didn’t even get to do their internships.”
Thankfully, Mint was able to complete hers with the Metropolitan Planning Council online, which created an entirely different experience from what she originally expected. “It was hard to separate my feelings toward the pandemic from the internship,” she says. “Contextually, I was doing the internship remotely, so I was doing the same work I would’ve done there, but instead of being in the office, instead of being around people and seeing them face to face, I sat at a computer all day.” Like so many, Mint experienced a lot of anxiety as COVID-19 caused instability in the government, economy, and social norms.
But Mint always manages to look on the bright side. “The internship itself was wonderful. I learned so much, I met wonderful people, [and] I laughed. They [the Metropolitan Planning Council] were really good at doing Zooms and forming emotional connections via Zoom,” she says. “But there was that bittersweet feeling all the time. It’s like we were in a pressure cooker for the whole summer. And I feel like now, we’re still in it, still in the trenches. So that was hard to deal with.”
Still, Mint only has good things to say about the program that changed her college career. “The Kemper Scholars Program provided a lot for me,” she reflects. “[It] taught me a lot about how to act in the workplace and how to strive for that. Jerry and Jenn, the director of KSP and program manager and treasurer, are wonderful people and reached out to us constantly. We were always in contact [during the summer].” Forming those relationships and mentorships through the program, Mint was able to embrace her college experience completely. It became one of those high-impact learning experiences Southwestern encourages.
Most students truly don’t know what they’ll learn about themselves and their environment until they go out, find those opportunities, and apply them. For Mint, it was much of the same thing. “I didn’t realize I learned so much until I applied for a recent internship, and I had to take a test of my knowledge of marketing. I didn’t realize how much I knew, and it was just things my supervisor said offhand at my last internship with the Metropolitan Planning Center of Chicago… very little things, but still very important!” she recalls. It’s for that reason, of the many, that Mint enjoyed her internship with the Kemper Scholars Program.
Go forth and conquer
Looking back, Mint has had so many opportunities because of the faculty and staff at Southwestern who continue looking out for her. During the summer of uncertainty, many of her professors reached out to her. In fact, the Kemper Scholar Committee on campus—Associate Professor of English David Gaines, Senior Associate Director of the Center for Career and Professional Development Alexandra Anderson, and Sihi—took Southwestern’s Kemper Scholars out for dinner to maintain the bond that had been cultivated through the program. “Dr. Sihi continues to be my mentor,” Mint comments. “She’s always in contact with me. I tell her everything about my life, academic and even personal. She helps me navigate—[she’s] still helping me navigate through college. She is my fairy godmother!”
Mint still thinks about what sitting next to Sihi during that alumni dinner did for her. “There is no physical way I can pay her back,” she says.“She turned my life and career upside down—just the path I was on, she changed it completely. I feel like the only way I can pay her back is to somehow be the mentor she was for me. Once I gain experience and am in the workforce, I hope I can be what she was to me for someone else.”
And by sharing her own experiences and offering advice, that’s exactly what Mint has started doing already. Her advice to students looking for internships and scholarships at Southwestern comes from a painting term called “fat over lean.” In art, this principle instructs you to apply paint with a higher oil-to-pigment ratio and then overlay with a lower oil-to-pigment ratio to ensure a stable base. In other words, start with a wide base, and build up from there. “So if you’re looking for an internship, at first, don’t turn down anything; go for some internships that seem crazy or not your style,” she pauses with a huge smile on her face. “I guarantee you that you will learn so much more than you would looking for an internship that will only confirm what you are looking for in a job. No one knows what they’re doing at first; I certainly didn’t. Further down the line, you can look for internships that are specific to what you want, [but first remember] fat over lean and build yourself up.”
Last of all, Mint encourages mindfulness and self-care. “Be kind to yourself. No one has it all together at first,” she advises. “And no one ever says, ‘First day of internship, crushed it!’ Because that’s unrealistic. You just gotta be kind to yourself.”