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Ten Years of Turning Out Ace Students

Ten years ago, leaders at the Leavey School of Business, including then-dean Barry Posner, decided that the school needed a new competitive edge to attract and retain top business students to SCU. Soon after, the ACE program was born.

Short for Accelerated Cooperative Education, ACE is an invitation-only program of mentoring, leadership, and internship preparation for students in the top 10 percent of their class. Qualifying students are invited to join in their freshman year, and then spend their sophomore, junior, and senior years as ACE students involved with special workshops, community service work, and prepping for internships and jobs.

"ACE was right on target with the Jesuit mission of leadership and service to others,” said Posner, who retired as dean in 2009 and is now a professor of leadership at Leavey. “It doubled and almost tripled the number of students of distinction who were admitted and joined us.”

The program, which just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, has graduated more than 250 students. Alumni have founded their own charitable nonprofits; interned for micro-lender Kiva in Sierra Leone; attended graduate school at the London School of Economics; spent a year at Teach for America; and landed jobs in accounting at Ernst & Young, Internet advertising at Google, and risk analysis at Marsh.

“ACE is a fast-track program for students to learn advanced business skills,” explained Brenda Versteeg, assistant director of undergraduate programs at Leavey, and ACE’s staff director. “But it’s also an intensified immersion into SCU’s Jesuit values—educating the whole person, recognizing one’s responsibility, discerning one’s vocation.”

Business students in the top decile of their class in their freshman year at SCU are invited to join ACE. While they don’t have dedicated academic classes to complete for ACE, they attend about 20 to 30 workshops over three years—tackling everything from leadership development, community engagement, resume polishing, interview skills, and risk-taking exercises. One such exercise: jumping for a ball while suspended 30 feet in the air—protected only by a rope secured by one’s ACE peers.

True to Santa Clara’s “educating the whole person” approach to learning, ACE students also spend their sophomore year in community engagement, such as leading Junior Achievement business-education classes for elementary school students.

One year, for instance, athletes and ACE students Ross Smith and Alex Bon—both well over 6 feet tall—spent a quarter teaching third graders about the economics of cities.

“When you get in there, you realize there’s a lot of pressure on you as a teacher, with twenty to twenty-five kids just listening and hanging on your every word,” said Smith, a 2010 graduate who now works for Ernst & Young and who called his ACE training “awesome.” 

“It makes you realize how much work, effort, and preparation teachers put into every day,” he added.

Other students immerse themselves in Arrupe Partnership placements, such as the student who spent a quarter in the Mountain View day-worker program, speaking Spanish and learning what life is like when one’s work prospects are dependent on the whim of a revolving door of employers.

Junior year in ACE is spent preparing for internships, often at one of the business partners that have formally worked with ACE over the years: Lockheed Martin, Hitachi Data Systems, Marsh, Target, and Yahoo. The partners come to campus in February to recruit interns for the summer, occasionally leading to full-time job offers at the end of the internship. In other cases students learn what sorts of jobs they are or are not suited to do.

During their internships, the students also spend several sessions reflecting on the internship experience. They describe the culture of the companies; discuss whether it was a good fit for them; and write “case studies” of incidents or projects that went well or poorly, and what they learned from them.

“They use this reflection, these case studies, as tools for their interviews when they are looking for full-time work,” said Versteeg.

Senior year in ACE is about the hunt for full-time employment. In addition to hardcore resume polishing and interview honing, students get mentoring from volunteers from Leavey’s advisory board. Mentors take the students to lunch, share their career stories, and introduce them to key contacts.

At the end, there’s usually a job, and a senior dinner attended by the dean and the University president. But there’s also a bond between classmates that lasts well beyond graduation. ACE alums stay connected through a newsletter, share their stories and tips when they come back for visits, and often stay friends for years.

While it is demanding, the ACE program is rewarding for the faculty and staff as well, said Leavey School of Business Dean Drew Starbird.

“Teaching ACE students is a real pleasure for business school faculty,” said Starbird. “Their thought-provoking questions and passionate perspectives transform an ordinary classroom exchange into a dynamic discussion.”


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