Mentors Who Make Us
Friday, October 13, 2023
By Wade Rupard
Exploring the many ways faculty, staff, and student leaders make an impact on those attending the Carlson School.
The challenges of college are difficult to navigate alone. Within the Carlson School, a culture of mentorship thrives, fostering an environment where students are not just set up for success but molded into principled, compassionate leaders.
Here, mentors take many forms—from the world-class researcher guiding the next generation of talent to the friendly upperclassman showing new students the ropes. These stories and more highlight the indelible mark of powerful mentorship.
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Building a Support System
In her first semester at the Carlson School in the fall of 2020, Nini Dang, ’23 BSB, joined Carlson THRIVE, a program for first-year students who are first-generation or from historically underrepresented groups to help them transition to college. The program provides each student with a mentor and Dang’s was then-sophomore Michael Abdon, ’23 BSB.
Dang, who graduated in three years, started college at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic when most classes and activities were done online.
“I struggled a lot that first year,” she recalls. “I’m a people person, so having everything virtual really wore on me. But when I met Michael and started talking to him, I felt like I had known him for the longest time.”
Abdon’s positivity helped Dang find her footing at the Carlson School—not just with academics. “I remember one time I forgot my credit card and I was stuck inside a parking garage,” Dang says. “I called Michael and within five minutes, he was there to help me.”
The two checked in with each other throughout their time at the school, and Dang says Abdon was always there to support and help her in ways big and small. In fact, Dang says he served as her “hype man,” as she navigated college, including when she ran for leadership positions in the business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi.
“Nini is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met,” Abdon says. “Her energy was infectious from the first time I met her. She had so much ambition and so many ideas on how to leave the Carlson School, her fraternity, and the University in a better place than when she got here.”
That sense of paying it forward continues to drive Abdon. Since graduating, he’s now teaching English as a second language in Latin and South America.
“This sense of mentorship and giving back has always been so important to me,” he says. “I always want to be the person who uplifts others.”
Malik Day, ’18 BSB, also found the transition into the University and the Carlson School difficult.
The first person in his family to graduate high school and attend college, Day walked through the halls and did not see many students who looked like him.
“A lot of times I was the only Black person in my class,” Day says. “It was a tough transition. Luckily, I found Jontue.”
That is Jontue Austin, senior academic advisor in the Undergraduate Program. The two men quickly bonded.
“He was more than a career coach for me,” Day says. “He was the closest thing to myself that I saw at the school, especially in the first year. He was very helpful in helping me transition into college socially. I’m not sure other people would have helped me in the ways Jontue did.”
Austin’s guidance continued throughout Day’s time at the Carlson School. In particular, recommending classes to take, programs to get involved in, and connections to make to support Day’s goal of entering the investment banking field.
“Malik was one of the first students I had the pleasure of mentoring as an academic advisor,” Austin recalls. “He is so smart and so driven. I did my best to give him the resources to succeed and reach his goals.”
Day graduated and worked in the finance industry before pivoting and attending a UCLA graduate program for computer science. He now works as a software engineer at Netflix.
Austin, of course, wrote a letter of recommendation to help him get in the master’s program.
“Jontue has always been there for me,” he says. “We still catch up every few months. I’m not sure where my academic or professional career would be without his mentorship and support.”
Learning the Trade
Derek Dukart, ’17 BSB, jumped at the chance to join the David S. Kidwell Funds Enterprise.
“When I got to college, I wanted to take as rigorous of coursework as possible,” he says. Being part of the Funds Enterprise as an undergraduate was a golden opportunity to soak up insights from real-world finance professionals.
Working alongside graduate students, Dukart and his peers managed a $50 million investment portfolio—one of the largest student-managed investment fund in the country.
“It was great to engage with MBA students, learn from a more mature audience, and see firsthand how finance careers can develop,” he says.
Dukart points to Susanna Gibbons, the fund’s managing director, as an instrumental influence during his time as a student.
“She’s always been so helpful, so thoughtful, and so kind,” he says. “Anytime I had a question, she always walked me through it and got me thinking in a different way. She’s someone I still reach out to from time to time to get advice and talk about the markets.”
Dukart has taken his experience and used it to launch a successful career in trading and portfolio management.
For Gibbons, seeing students like Dukart go on and succeed is the reason why she teaches.
“I love seeing the progress students make throughout their time here,” she says. “Students like Derek come in, really eager to learn, working hard to connect everything from their classes, and then I get to help them piece it all together. To even be part of a piece of that is an incredible feeling.”
The Research Connection
The bond between a doctoral student and their advisor is built over years of data collection, analysis, and seemingly never-ending revisions. Christina Jeong, ’23 PhD, experienced this all firsthand with her advisor Jason Chan, associate professor of Information & Decision Sciences.
After coming to the Carlson School from South Korea, Jeong developed a connection with Chan over a shared interested in his research, which focuses on business and policy insights on emerging internet phenomena and social outcomes. The two worked on three research papers together—two working papers and one that is under review by an academic journal.
“The relationship between a PhD student and a faculty member is much different than that of master’s students or undergraduates,” Chan says. “You’re seeing each other almost every day and you’re working together very closely on things like research. You really get to know each other very well.”
For Jeong, this was instrumental in developing her career.
“Jason’s mentorship meant a lot to me,” she says. “I learned a lot from him about how to approach research and approach being a professor. I couldn’t have done it without him.”
When Jeong began applying for faculty positions, Chan proved to be a big help.
“Interviews for faculty members can be really tough,” Chan says. “So we would walk through how to keep your composure and how to answer questions in a confident way.”
The coaching paid off. This fall, Jeong is starting at the University of Hawai’i as an assistant professor.