Collegians undergo the pain, joy of `Apprentice' experience

Class in Illinois gets praise from Trump


October 24, 2004|By Jo Napolitano | Jo Napolitano,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CHICAGO - With neatly pressed shirts and polished shoes, students enrolled in a rigorous marketing class modeled after Donald Trump's reality show The Apprentice look less like college students and more like anxious business executives.

And they take their work almost as seriously. One student, after being eliminated from the competition, walked out in tears, shielding her face with a notebook to prevent a student film crew from chronicling her reaction.

Just as on Trump's NBC program, the students in Northern Illinois University's "Marketing Apprentice" course have been assigned a weekly task and had their performances videotaped for review. They then attend tense "boardroom" meetings where two Trump stand-ins - Northern Illinois alumni who run their own companies - decide who to cast out.

The course, the brainchild of university officials who wanted to bring "real world" experience to the classroom, has caught Trump's attention. He recently lauded it on the radio, delighting university officials who had notified him of the class.

"I want to hand it to Northern Illinois University's College of Business," Trump said. "They are just a little bit ahead of the pack. If I were 20 years old again, I'd be in that class."

Unlike Trump's show, where contestants live in a swanky New York apartment and have a chance to land a job with "The Donald" himself, the winners at NIU were to receive $1,000 scholarships, an A in the class and bragging rights. The next best team also was to get A's, but just half the scholarship money. Students fired after the first competition got C's, but could improve their grade by writing a paper. Others let go earned a B.

The class, which started with 16 students Aug. 23, was to end this month.

Funding for the course, including the $7,500 in scholarship money, came from companies and individuals who made contributions specifically to the "Marketing Apprentice" class.

After their weekly critiques, the students were given the chance to make a plea for their jobs, telling judges why they shouldn't be fired.

That process was a little more discreet than the verbal sparring on the TV show; students voted secretly on who they thought should be let go, but the judges made the final calls.

Once they were fired, students were required to have a one-on-one meeting with a faculty adviser, to make sure they were all right and also to talk about their performance.

Robert Oaf, 21, a senior let go at the end of the second class, had a difficult time accepting his dismissal. "I was a little angry," he said. "It was early in the game, so it was a little embarrassing."

Oaf, who said he came to appreciate the lessons learned from the course, was still required to come to class each Monday to follow his classmates' progress. All students in the class were invited to meet with faculty and staff at a local bar after each boardroom meeting to network and unwind.

"I don't look at it as a class, but as a job," said Jonathan Van Plew, 25, who made it to the final round. "You get to find out what you're good at, but you also get to find out what you need to work on."

Although it was difficult to acknowledge and overcome his weaknesses, Van Plew said he is more confident about heading into the real work force.

The demands of the apprentice class dwarfed the amount of time students spent on other courses.

Dave Haas, 22, a resident assistant who works part time at a restaurant and is a member of a fraternity, made it to the final round, but said he spent 20 hours on the class one week. However, the work has started to pay off, he said. A company that heard about his involvement approached him about a job.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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