Logo: University of Southern California

You’ve Got A Friend

The Viterbi Student-Alumni Mentoring Program pairs students with distinguished mentors, who offer invaluable academic and professional advice.
By: Marc Ballon
January 21, 2016 —
Standing on the bridge of a huge Asia-bound transport ship, Pamela Denny seemed transfixed as she watched a crane drop about 30 tons of steel fragments into the hold.

At this Port of Los Angeles recycling complex, the 49-year-old USC Viterbi engineering student passed mountain after mountain of scrap steel awaiting shipment. She stopped at a highly mechanized shredding plant that pulverizes everything from cars to washing machines, sending mounds of steel, copper, brass and aluminum down conveyor belts for separating.

This ballet of industrial precision impressed Denny, who dreams of one day of designing and manufacturing robots that help people. “As an engineering student, I spend most of my life in theory, in books, in the classroom,” said Denny, who donned a neon green safety vest, goggles and hardhat at the facility. “Seeing something like this shows me a different side of engineering. It’s hands-on and inspiring.”

Leading Denny on her three-hour tour of SA Recycling was Executive Vice President of Business Development Terry Adams, ME ’81. Adams, despite giving up an entire Friday morning and braving Orange County freeway traffic for this outing, had no complaints. After all, he is Denny’s mentor.

“It always feels good being able to help people when you can,” said Adams, a USC Viterbi Board of Councilors’ member who over the years has mentored six Trojan engineering students through the Viterbi Student-Alumni Mentoring Program, or VSAMP. “Even though my contribution to their future success might be minimal, I’m hoping that the students get something out of our interaction, whether it’s thinking about their careers or the different opportunities engineering offers.”

Founded in 2011, VSAMP pairs undergraduate USC Viterbi students with alumni mentors who currently work or have professional experience in engineering. Mentors meet with mentees an average of once a month during the academic year, often in person but sometimes by phone or Skype. Topics up for discussion include how to become a good leader; effective communication skills; professionalism in the workplace; career challenges; and long-term goals and how to achieve them, among other subjects.

“I think the program is really beneficial, because it gives students an opportunity to interact with people who have gone through what they have, who can guide them and who can encourage them,” said Diane Yoon, coordinator of VSAMP. “I think every college student would benefit from a program like this.”

An increasing number of USC Viterbi students have availed themselves of the opportunity. In the 2015 – 2016 academic year, 200 students enrolled in VSAMP, nearly twice as many as the inaugural class. They receive counsel and support from 190 mentors - nearly all of whom hold USC Viterbi degrees.

USC Viterbi Ph.D. student Anthony Medrano, who earned his BS at USC Viterbi,  is among the mentees who have benefitted from the program.

He credits his former mentor, Bill Ballhaus, with playing a positive and influential role in his life. Ballhaus, a member of the USC Viterbi Board Councilors and ex-chief executive of The Aerospace Corp., encouraged Medrano to aim high and take risks.

“The best advice he’s given me is that you should always strive to be at the very top, to put in the long hours to get where you want to go,” said Medrano, who credits Ballhaus with his decision to pursue a Ph.D. “To have someone like Bill Ballhaus give you advice is very uplifting, motivating and inspirational.”

Medrano hopes to follow in Ballhaus’ footsteps and eventually work at Aerospace, where he has interned the past two summers. Medrano’s relationship with the former Aerospace leader probably doesn’t hurt his chances.

“I put his resume in the system there,” Ballhaus said with a laugh. He has continued to mentor Medrano, even though Ballhaus’ formal role ended more than a year ago.

Ballhaus said he volunteered for the program, because he wanted to “pay it forward.” During his career, which included an 11-year stint at Lockheed Martin Corp. as vice president of engineering and technology, he said he benefited at different junctures from his relationship with mentors. Ballhaus believes he has gotten as much out of VSAMP as his mentees.

“I really enjoy seeing people progress in their careers,” he said. “I enjoy helping talented young people.”