Firsthand learning’s earnings

Real experiences pay off for students all over campus

Buy, sell, trade: That's the call the Student Managed Fund answers when classmates meet twice a week to decide what to do with their money. Not Monopoly money, but real dollars that, five years ago, Dr. Larry Lynch talked the Board of Trustees into giving to this elite group of students that works all semester making decisions that can affect the bottom line.

It started out with a half a million dollars seed money for this investment class in the Department of Business Administration and Economics. The College receives five percent per year from the proceeds of the funds, which have grown. Over the last five years, the investments are up $39,000. Even battling the current recession, the students have out-performed the benchmark of 35% Lehman Brothers Bond Index and 65% S&P 500 Index. This spring, the Student Managed Fund was down 0.85 percent while the benchmark was down 17.7 percent. "So, we are beating the benchmark by almost 17 percent," said Lynch.

Students earn half a credit per semester for participating in this class, but that's not the true measure of their gain. This spring semester there were 27 students in the class, led by student-elected co-managers Andrew Streaman '09 and Jonathan Herttua '09, both seniors from New Jersey. Streaman, an economics major who also was interning with a local financial planner, put his expertise to work by analyzing stocks for the company. Both feel that this class is the finest they have taken at Roanoke College because it is hands-on learning.

"This is real-world stuff," said Lynch. "They are not pretending; they are making these trades." At 3:55 p.m., five minutes before the market closes, their professor calls their Merrill Lynch broker to buy, sell or trade, contingent on majority vote in the class that day. Lynch does not vote, nor does he intercede.

Students come to class ready to make a pitch; they've done their homework by researching before class, knowing what the stocks are doing, and then defending their position. Last semester, the students argued over buying or selling Volkswagen stock, which they had originally bought at $49.10 per share. They had 150 shares, and just before class, a few noticed it was going up. By the time they got to class, it had escalated $100 dollars per share, due to Porsche making a move on Volkswagen. The class met, argued, and Lynch kept nervously quiet. The stock continued to rise. Then Herttua, who was the manager in the fall, called for a vote. Majority won, and Lynch contacted the broker to sell - at $227.60 per share. The next day, the stock was trading at $130. The class' profit was close to $27,000.

"There is no such thing as a ‘group think' in this class," commented Elizabeth Myers '09. The students are forced to come prepared, speak up and argue their position. Lynch said that every single time a new manager steps in to guide the process, that student is timid. At first. But by the time the semester ends, the manager has done a turn around. "I see the transformation," he said. Herttua said the lessons he has learned by being manager, and then co-manager, this semester have been absolutely essential.

Compounded by this recession, the education earned in the Student Managed Fund has been even more important this year. "This is the best time in the world for a student to be going through a class like this. There is an unprecedented amount of risk involved," said Lynch, who is chairman of the business administration and economics department. Herttua said it has made the students look a lot harder at the companies in which they were considering investing. Streaman said they were looking at the recession globally. "With this class, more than any other class, you get out of it what you put into it," said Streaman. Each student is assigned a sector to monitor, and at the end of the class, stocks of interest may be put on a "watch list" for further consideration.

Lynch said that, historically, the students who have participated in the Student Managed Fund have a better shot at job placement after graduation. They are trained to pitch - and soon, it will be themselves they are pitching at a tightening job market.

Students learn by helping nonprofits
The economy also has exacerbated local nonprofits' bottom lines, but students taking the sociology department's capstone course are giving them a lending hand. In this semester-long course, students research and write grant proposals for area agencies, such as the Bradley Free Clinic, St. Francis Service Dogs, the YWCA, Children's Trust's CASA or Court Appointed Special Advocates. Last year, two of the nonprofits received funds as a result of the work of his students, said Dr. Ed Hamilton, the College's director of academic grants. Those were the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition and Bradley Free Clinic. Hamilton and Dr. Daniel Sarabia, an assistant professor of sociology who co-teaches the course, said this experience gives their students the opportunity to integrate their base of sociology knowledge.

Julie Bass '09 and Douglas Tiburcio '09, both senior sociology majors, were working with the St. Francis Service Dog Foundation, where they also volunteered. Tiburcio said he learned how to work with agencies and deal with communications mishaps, scheduling difficulties and the challenges of culling massive amounts of information. Again, it's the real world, and it's one that Bass and Tiburcio intend to pursue in their careers. "This is applied sociology. This is more than a class. We are writing grants for people," he said.

Bass said that prior to this course she had worked on group problems in college but not in a cooperative-learning situation for an entire semester. At the end, she said this experience means more than just a grade. "I know that my actions can improve lives," she said.

Sociology major Erica Daniel '09, who intends to pursue a master's degree, ultimately wants to work with nonprofits. "All of this is gearing me up for the next five years," she said. Her work with the YWCA has involved writing a grant proposal for scholarships for women in poverty, in cooperation with Virginia Western Community College. She also was interning at the Advancement Foundation.

The capstone's intent, said Sarabia, is to offer the students something that they can bring to their communities. Hamilton added: "They definitely come away with a different perspective. It changes them a great deal in terms of their knowledge level and skills." Tiburcio, who said his focus has long been on inner city youth, has gained "vital experience. This is the most important class I've taken," he said.

Lab assistants get a valuable head start
While sociology is busy interacting with people, Dr. Darwin Jorgensen's lab assistants are interacting with ... crustaceans. "There are things we can do with students in our biology department research labs that are very different from what the students would experience in a typical classroom setting," said Jorgensen. Students usually are asked by Jorgensen to work on research projects in his lab, although sometimes they approach him.

What distinguishes this work from a typical teaching lab is that the outcome is not known, and there are no set variables, explained Vicki Brings '10, a junior biology major who intends to apply to grad school to study physiology. "Here, we have a goal and pursue it and try to find an answer," she said. "We have to be intellectually engaged and apply our knowledge."

Jorgensen said that these students are doing cutting-edge research that has never been done before. "And this is true not only in my lab, but in all of the research labs in this department," said Jorgensen, the Brian H. Thornhill Professor of Biology and chairman of the department.

"These are projects that would be worked on by graduate students - at a graduate institution - typically," he said. "The benefits that accrue for our students are really commonsensible. They are asked to solve problems that I don't know how to solve. We work and struggle through these problems together. Students learn how science is done, that experiments don't always work, and that when experiments do work, it is immensely satisfying."

Students come into the lab early in their time at Roanoke - sometimes even in their first year, Jorgensen said. They are trained, usually by students who have worked in the lab for a couple of years already, engage in a project, and most often end up summarizing their work as a senior thesis. Sometimes, their projects are the equivalent of a master's thesis.

Former student Trevor Wilkes '00 completed a thesis of this caliber, said Jorgensen. After attending U.Va. medical school and doing his residency in anesthesiology there as well, Wilkes is now working in Salem for Valley Anesthesia at Lewis-Gale Medical Center. Wilkes said his three years in Jorgensen's research the biology lab showed him the real-world applications for what he was studying in the classroom. Learning how to identify problems and then solve them on his own helped him through med school, as well.

"It was the independent-learning aspect that prepared me for medical training," Wilkes said. "Not only do you learn to do that, but also you understand how the process works."

Presenting his findings to faculty and peers, in a formal setting, gave him the confidence to speak intelligently at a higher level. Today, in a clinical setting, decisions may be questioned, but Wilkes said he has been used to that since he was an undergraduate and that it's now up to him to know what's right for the patient and to stand up for it.

Brings is currently the head student researcher in Jorgensen's lab. She organizes the other students, teaches them how to use the equipment, and the responsibilities of taking care of the experimental animals. She said her role as leader and teacher to the other assistants has taught her to take responsibility and be more engaged with the topics she has studied in biology. She was on her way to U.Va. as a transfer student at the end of her freshman year at Roanoke College when the opportunity to work in Jorgensen's lab came up. She knew it was a unique challenge. "There was no way I would be doing my own research project with the head of the department at U.Va.," she said.

This year, Brings is studying the effects bacterial infection has on the cardio-respiratory system of the American lobster. "Now, towards the end of this research project, I have an idea of where we can go next," she said. "Bacteria are common in fisheries where lobsters are commercially bred."

Jorgensen sees the impact this research has on his students. Most have gone on to medical school or graduate school. "If students can sit in front of an admissions committee and talk with authority about a cutting-edge research project they have driven to completion, this speaks to another level of independence. It is totally different from their having done well in the classroom, and this can be very impressive to those committee members," he said.

Hands-on learning is routine across campus, where students might be monitoring the stock market, conducting scientific research in high-tech labs or finding funding for area nonprofits to help those in need. Roanoke College values firsthand learning, is invested in it and repeatedly sees positive outcomes in its students.