Whitman’s Strategy Creates a Welcoming Environment for Students Initiatives Further the Rich Diversity of the Management School, Set Up Students for Future Success

If you look around the halls of the Martin J. Whitman School of Management, it is often easy to see diversity in race, gender and culture on the faces of our students. But, it sometimes takes a harder look to see the many other layers of diversity students possess that are not quite so visible.


There’s the student who is the first generation in the family to go to college but has questions parents can’t answer.


There’s another who transferred from a community college and is concerned about the rigors of earning a four-year business degree.


There’s a woman reminding herself that she is talented enough to succeed in what are traditionally male-dominated fields.


Another has served in the military and has a worldview that many others can’t begin to understand.


There’s a student with a learning disability or mental health issue that can make the expectations of business school even more challenging.


These individuals are examples of just some of the differences among our students. The common thread of respect and acceptance that runs through the Whitman School ties them together as a student body that is welcomed and embraced into a business school environment offering limitless opportunities for a successful future.


“To truly be a welcoming community, we need to foster a deeper level of thinking that allows us to define diversity as more than solely race and gender but includes consideration of all people’s lived experiences,” says Interim Dean Alex McKelvie. “By doing so, we can shape a student’s time here from something OK to something outstanding, and the Whitman School is committed to making this happen for all.”


“Creating a diverse and welcoming community is the morally and ethically right thing to do,” adds Whitman’s Executive Dean and Syracuse University’s Vice Chancellor for Strategic Initiatives and Innovation J. Michael Haynie. “And, it’s also the right business strategy to ensure the success of Whitman moving forward.”


According to Haynie, demographic changes will impact higher education in the next few years, as the traditional high school student going to college is a quickly declining population. Birth rates have not recovered since the 2008-09 recession, and it is predicted that by 2025, there will be a 20% decrease in prospective college students.


“If we’re not welcoming students outside the traditional norms, then we’re putting our own enterprise at risk,” Haynie says. “A diversity of ideas, backgrounds and life experiences makes us more competitive and has a positive impact on the way we teach and train students at the Whitman School to be better prepared to go out as confident leaders in an ever changing business world.”




Positioning First-Generation College Students For Success


One group of students that Whitman has focused on recently is first-generation college students, those whose parents did not attend college. It’s a population that crosses all socioeconomic groups and has grown from 12% of Whitman students from fall 2022 to 19% in fall 2023.


Many first-generation students come to Whitman without the general understanding of many aspects of college life—from how to choose the right major or ask for help from a professor to the importance of participating in extracurricular activities or internships to enhance their resumes. To support this growing population, the Whitman School recently introduced two programs to make sure these students find the answers they are looking for to complete their business degrees.


The Whitman First program is designed for first-year, first-generation students who are open to matching with a staff or faculty mentor to help guide them with critical information they may need. For the most part, the faculty and staff members who volunteer to mentor were first-generation college students themselves.


According to Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Programs Lindsay Quilty, data shows that the presence of a mentor in a first-year student’s life gives that individual a significantly higher chance of returning for sophomore year. Add the extra level of uncertainty and pressure often found among first-generation students, and the need for mentoring is even more critical. While the Whitman First program is optional, more than 30% of this year’s incoming first-generation students signed up.


Quilty emphasizes that Whitman is not trying to duplicate the resources students receive from Syracuse University but, instead, aims to enhance that with specific guidance for succeeding in a business school environment. In addition to mentors, the program offers monthly meetings on just-in-time topics like financial awareness, the advantages of study abroad, classroom technology and deciphering business jargon.


 “We want our first-generation college students to have access to resources and information that other students already have ingrained in them from parents or other family members who’ve been to college,” says Quilty. “Many first-generation students have a lot of pressure placed on them to succeed, and we hope to alleviate some of that through Whitman First.”


Assistant Professor of Accounting Sebastian Tideman-Frappart is excited to mentor a first-generation student, as he was one himself when he enrolled in the University of Bremen as an undergraduate in his native Germany.


“My dad was a truck driver and my mom was a warehouse assistant. And, while they were super proud of me going to college, they couldn’t help me with a lot of the information I needed once I got there,” he says. “I had a lot of uncertainty and was always wondering if I was good enough to be there. I had to figure out things like how to manage my finances on my own, how to pick the right major and how to apply for internships or jobs. And, I was horrified at the idea of failing.”


He hopes serving as a mentor will help students at Whitman avoid some of the stresses he endured. “Just the fact that the school has started a program like Whitman First and acknowledges that first-generation students have unique needs is a clear signal to them that they are not alone on this journey,” says Tideman-Frappart. “There are many faculty members and staff who were also first-generation and made it through. And I hope that sends a message to our current first-generation students that says, ‘You’re fine, and, if you’re not, we are here to support you.’” Joyce Wang ’27 is a first-generation student from New York City studying finance and contemplating adding another major in business analytics. “My mom has no idea what going to college is like, so she has no advice about school to give me,” she says. “Honestly, it’s a little stressful, as college is a whole new experience. Syracuse is super different from the predominantly Asian community where I grew up, so it’s helpful hearing from other first-generation students and faculty who have done well at Whitman. It’s opened my eyes to putting in more effort and making sure I put myself out there. My mom always wished she went to college, and she tells me that I should look at my time here as a good experience. So far, that’s been true, and I feel welcomed and supported at the Whitman School.”


Another way Whitman is helping first-generation students is through its Multicultural and First-Generation Parent Resource Group, established two years ago by Executive Director of Institutional Culture Diane Crawford to promote formalized communication with families. “There were a lot of parents of first-generation and/or students of color coming to me with questions, so I figured if they had these questions, others did, too,” Crawford says. “When students leave home for the first time, I know it’s important for them to develop their own independence, but this isn’t about hand holding. So we decided that building a strong partnership with parents was something we could do to help ensure success.”


The group welcomes family members to activities during New Student Move In and Family Weekend. It also holds monthly meetings online featuring speakers from the Advising Office, the Career Center, Syracuse Abroad and others who can help raise awareness of the options available to students, while furthering parents’ understanding of how important it is for their children to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible.


Crawford cites one example where first-generation students and students of color often don’t even consider studying abroad due to financial constraints or don’t comprehend the value this can bring to career opportunities. To this end, Crawford invited Eunkyu Lee, associate dean for global initiatives, to speak to families about the many study abroad options that Whitman offers in global business centers, including available financial resources. Other topics, like how to obtain a passport or the importance of cultural etiquette, were also addressed.


“There’s a nuance working with first-generation or marginalized groups and handling information in a way that comes across as an opportunity, not a criticism, to make sure all of our students have equitable access to all that Whitman has to offer,” Crawford says.


Both the student and parent groups were recognized in February with one of the 2024 Inspiring Programs in Business Award from Insight Into Diversity magazine, the largest and oldest diversity and inclusion publication in higher education. Criteria include efforts to inspire and encourage a new generation of young people to consider careers in business through mentoring, teaching, research and successful programs and initiatives.



Celebrating Women Entering Traditionally Male-Dominated Business Fields


When the Class of ’27 arrived as first-year students last fall, it marked a milestone, as, for the first time in the history of the School, the cohort was made up of more women (53%) than men (47%) and was also the most diverse class to date.


Since 2018, Whitman, in cooperation with the University’s Office of Admissions, has worked diligently to see female enrollment grow from 37% to the current 53%, as more women consider various business majors and careers, according to Rachel DuBois, director of undergraduate recruitment at Whitman.


Recruitment efforts have included making sure prospective female students can envision themselves in the halls of Whitman by providing plenty of female tour guides and interactions with other female students and strong female faculty role models.


Maddy Gregg ’27 is a member of the first class to have more women than men. She is an entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises major, although she is also exploring other options like marketing, management or Whitman’s 3+3 joint degree program with the Syracuse University College of Law.


Gregg acknowledged that there are a lot of men in her group projects and clubs, but that doesn’t seem to bother her. She is proud to be a member of the first class to have more women than men, noting that, in general, she feels that women tend to shy away from STEM and business careers. However, Gregg had a different feeling from the moment she first visited the Whitman School as a prospective student.


“At other business schools, the tour groups were all men, but here there were plenty of women,” she says. “Now that I’m here, I have professors who are women, and I like that because they have a perspective on some of the obstacles females can face in the business world.


She notes Assistant Teaching Professor Elizabeth Wimer as someone she particularly admires. “I haven’t had a class with her yet, but her presence is such a ‘girl boss,’” says Gregg. “I aspire to be like that. She just knows what she’s doing, and no one can tell her otherwise.”


“I take my relationship with my students seriously, and it’s always encouraging to hear that students connect with the passion and drive I bring to my work,” says Wimer. “As we welcome the first Whitman undergraduate cohort that skewed female, I see how my role may have a particular impact on that group, given my experiences as a female in the business world. I read recently in Forbes that 57% of women believe having a relatable role model in the workplace is crucial to achieving career success, and 70% of women agree it’s easier to be like someone you can see in action. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to interact and possibly be that relatable role model for our first-year students.”


Another female professor Whitman students see as a role model is Associate Teaching Professor of Finance Fatma Sonmez-Leopold. “I think it’s the rebellious side of me that rails against a male society that sometimes says women aren’t good enough,” she says. “When I am at school, I carry myself as a person who is intelligent and knows what she is talking about. I make sure to send messages, like referring to a CEO as a ‘she’ in class, not automatically as a ‘he.’ It’s subtle messaging that helps female students understand that they have a place here. I know that the Whitman School is very supportive of women. In the seven years I’ve been here, I’ve never felt blocked. It’s just a great environment that allows me to own who I am.”


“We should celebrate the number of women we have at the Whitman School because it’s a step in the right direction to create strong females to tackle the business world, along with male counterparts who are comfortable with them and respect and accept them as equals,’’ Sonmez-Leopold adds. “All business schools need to actively work to increase the number of women to feed into the pipeline of all aspects of business.”



Saluting Active U.S. Military and Veterans Seeking Business Know-How


 “In the context of diversity, I’ve long made the case that if you authentically value diversity, you can’t ignore nontraditional populations, and the military is one of them,” says Haynie, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 14 years. “The GI Bill is a great tuition benefit, and many who couldn’t make it to college any other way use it to open the door to higher education.”


According to Haynie, many active military or veterans come to Whitman from lower economic backgrounds and underserved inner-city or rural locations, are first-generation college students or have other challenging circumstances. Those factors, combined with their military service, bring great value in the diversity of experiences they bring to the Whitman School.


“Active duty military or veterans come to us with a unique set of world experiences,” says Haynie. “Most have served all over the globe and have a cross-cultural context where they become acquainted with working across differences and obstacles that are very different relative to our more typical student experience.”


Embracing members of the military has a long history at the Whitman School (see article on on 70 years of the Defense Comptrollership Program), including the namesake of the School, Martin J. Whitman ’49, H’08, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran. He used the GI Bill to go to community college and then to Syracuse University. He was always grateful that the University gave him a chance when other schools turned him down. Instead, he was welcomed here and used his education to become accomplished as the founder of Third Avenue Management. His appreciation and generosity led to the naming of the Martin J. Whitman School of Management in 2005.


“It is accurate to say that the contemporary focus on veterans that has become the strategy for the whole University has origins at the Whitman School,” says Haynie, who joined the Whitman School in 2006 as an assistant professor of entrepreneurship.


The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities started at Whitman in 2007 and became the impetus for other military programs, including the University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families, established in 2011. Today, it is not uncommon to find members of the military in both graduate and undergraduate programs at the Whitman School and across campus.


As a paratrooper for 13 years (eight active duty and five as a reservist) with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division based in Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg) in North Carolina, Staff Sgt. Bradley Pokorny ’22 MBA enrolled in the Whitman School’s online MBA program in 2019. At the time, he was also CEO of his business development company, Ferox Group, while also partnering with other businesses. Many of his military counterparts came to him for advice about their own business ventures. But, while Pokorny had a bachelor’s degree in business management and finance, he felt he needed the credential of an MBA to truly help others with business operations and development.


With a history of welcoming active duty military and veterans, the Whitman School was an excellent choice for Pokorny to pursue his MBA. The flexibility of being able to learn both in real time online and asynchronously worked well with his schedule, and he especially liked the required residency programs that brought him to campus, noting one residency on business related to the emerging cannabis industry and another on negotiations led by Syracuse University Chancellor Kent Syverud.


“There’s something about sitting down and conversing with your professors and classmates that appealed to me, especially since the rest of the program was online. Whitman really rolled out the red carpet for my visits to campus, and everyone was so welcoming,” he recalls.


In 2021, Pokorny was deployed but determined to continue working toward his degree. Despite being in the middle of the United States’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pokorny logged in from Kabul in the middle of the night to attend his Venture Capital and Business Law classes. Even though he was halfway around the world, he still felt well connected and appreciated the support of his professors and the others in his cohort.


After completing an MBA, Pokorny and his family came to campus in spring 2022 for graduation ceremonies. The following November, he separated from the Army, settling in Texas, where he has since utilized his skills with the Ferox Group and a new endeavor as president of Ferox Manufacturing and Consulting.


“Earning my MBA, particularly while active military, was a challenge, but that’s what I thrive on,” he says. “I don’t believe in slowing down, and what I took away from the Whitman online program will continue to be valuable to me throughout my business career.”



Providing Assistance to Those With Learning Disabilities, Mental Health Challenges


According to McKelvie, the University is committed to assisting students with disabilities, and Whitman has built on that effort, particularly in the areas of how some students learn differently and a specific initiative to further address mental health issues.


“It is important that we understand that not every student learns the same way, and we’ve made an effort to adjust the pedagogy and rethink some long-held assumptions on how to best deliver a business education,” says McKelvie. “Sometimes, it’s bringing in technology that better allows students to absorb information. Other examples are trying out active learning initiatives like a flipped classroom or faculty efforts to provide various ways of assessing student competencies apart from traditional exams. These are the things that can shape the Whitman experience from an OK one to something that is outstanding for our students.”


Professor of Entrepreneurial Practice and Deputy Chair of the EEE department John Torrens has been a great advocate for those who learn differently and has been open about his own ADHD diagnosis. He is also a promoter of self-care and attention to preserving one’s mental health, information he often shares with his students at the Whitman School.


“Fifteen years ago, when I started here, there was this idea that we wanted to stress out our students because we needed to prepare them for the hectic business world they were about to enter,” he says. “That has certainly changed over time, particularly since the pandemic, which was, of course, a stressful time for everyone, everywhere. Today, we hold our students accountable, but I think many of the Whitman faculty make a greater effort to destress them, as well.”


Torrens teaches the senior year Honors Capstone Project, of which the final presentation is essentially a compilation of four years of learning at the Whitman School. It can be a stressful time for students who spend countless hours completing this project.


“Of course, this presentation is very important and a true representation of four years of hard work, but I still tell students, ‘It’s one day in your life. You know this, and you’re going to do just fine,’” he says. “Teaching by example the idea of keeping things in perspective is just as important as some of the other skills they learn here.”


Torrens practices what he preaches. He has a no-laptop policy during class discussions and has learned various ways to manage his approach to teaching. “I’m more chill, and the class is not so foreboding,” he says. “Students have told me that they like it and see it as a chance to disconnect from technology and really engage in class.”


He has also implemented changes in his own life, many of which he shared at a presentation, Balance It, at the ’CUSE50 Summit held at Whitman last November. Torrens has found sleep to be key to his mental and physical well-being, using an Oura ring to track his sleep, avoiding coffee after 1 p.m., limiting alcohol, practicing intermittent fasting and avoiding electronic devices for several hours before he goes to bed. “After a while, these habits become normal, and my body thanks me for that,” he says.


Another effort that the Whitman School has rolled out is the Nass Mental Health Initiative, thanks to a $500,000 pledge from David ’91 and Dina ’91 (A&S) Nass, who wanted to find a way to create healthier business leaders and employees.


According to McKelvie, the initiative is something not found in most business schools. It is helping Whitman identify those facing mental health challenges and direct them to the appropriate resources, while also preparing all its students for the significant obstacles and strain on mental health that they are certain to face during their professional careers.


Statistics show that students and working professionals are constantly told that they must “be on” to succeed, which can result in depression, chronic stress, burnout and more. But the Whitman School hopes that the Nass Mental Health Initiative will help contribute to an evolving attitude that work-life balance is also key to success and that addressing mental health concerns is critical.


“Modern management is no longer a command-and-control, bark orders style in most working environments,” McKelvie says. “Young people entering the workforce are looking for bosses who will understand them and their personal struggles. I think the Nass initiative will help our students become better, more empathetic leaders willing to connect with their teams and adjust their leadeship styles for better results. This will likely increase employee satisfaction, resulting in lower turnover and less work-related issues from stress and burnout.”


McKelvie notes high profile companies like Goldman Sachs and EY, which recruit from Whitman, are starting to pay closer attention to its employees by implementing their own mental health programs.


While still in the early stages, the Nass gift has allowed Whitman to increase awareness of mental health and wellness in a subtle way, as some stigma still exists. To date, Whitman has held several programs and events on defining life goals and priorities, as well as sessions for both students, staff and faculty on how to identify others in distress. The School has also hosted Whitman Wellness Week, the Wellness Resource Fair and Public Health Week to offer students tips on self-care, healthy eating, journaling and other relaxation practices.


“We have more plans for this initiative, but we are being patient and making sure that we’re using our resources for what is truly valuable to our students,” says McKelvie. “It’s coming together, and, so far, student feedback has been very positive. Word is getting out, and we think it is also attracting prospective students who want a business education in an environment that makes wellness a priority. We are tremendously grateful for the Nass family for making this happen.”


While there are certainly more diversity-related issues to be addressed at the Whitman School, these initiatives are a giant step in creating an environment where students can be themselves, challenge their limits, seek the help they need and count on others to support them with a wider view of what diversity is.


“Identifying the layers of diversity and working toward ensuring that everyone at Whitman feels welcomed is part of our goal to provide a holistic, first-rate business education,” says McKelvie. “Appreciating differences makes me better, makes our faculty better and, I am certain, contributes to a more satisfying and successful business school experience for students at the Whitman School of Management.”



Sidebar: Embracing Those Seeking Opportunity Within the Greater Syracuse Community


Underserved populations come from all races, genders and cultures, and they also come from areas within the surrounding Syracuse community. One major initiative for Whitman is a new partnership with Onondaga Community College (OCC), which is just a few miles from the University campus and offers two-year associate degrees.


The partnership designed to support direct transfer of admissions for OCC students to Whitman is an extension of a similar agreement between other schools and colleges at the University. Most of OCC’s students come from the local area, where 40% are students of color and 61% are first-generation college students.


The initiative guarantees seamless admission to OCC students who have completed their associate degree with a GPA of 3.4 or higher. Qualified students receive merit-based scholarships of at least $10,000 to continue their education at Whitman. Both schools have worked together to create advising standards and course transfer requirements to ensure that the students from OCC are supported and successful when they make the leap to Whitman.


“The Whitman School is committed to welcome students at all stages of their learning journey. This new partnership with OCC allows us to work collaboratively with a great local partner to enact a pathway to a business-related bachelor’s degree for residents of the Central New York community,” says Interim Dean McKelvie. “It creates a pipeline to Whitman that brings a diversity of ideas, backgrounds and other qualities that will simply make us better as a whole. And this initiative is also aligned with positioning students for exciting new careers stemming from this region’s partnership with semiconductor manufacturer Micron Technology.”


Micron has announced its intentions to invest $100 billion over the next two decades to construct four chip-making facilities in the Syracuse suburb of Clay. The global corporation has stated that this will bring 9,000 jobs to this location, as well as 40,000 jobs to the community. Whitman is joining the conversation and intends to prepare students across all majors for opportunities Micron will bring to this area.



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