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Putting students on the fast track

Business students with the potential to reach - and the gumption to shoot for - the executive suite are being given a boost up the corporate ladder with the help of a fast-track management program at Texas A & M University.

Starting with students who have already shown a propensity for management, the CBA (College of Business Administration) Fellows program is polishing the intellect and burnishing the leadership skills of a select group of students to give them a head start in the business world.

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Dr. Lyle Schoenfeldt, organizer of the program and head of the school's management department, is trying to pack into a year and a half of college what students would normally encounter in their first four or five years in the business world.

''If they went out into a company with a sophisticated management development program, the company's goal would be to age these people rapidly. And that's what I'm trying to do to.'' says Schoenfeldt.

''I want them to understand that, because of what they have already done, they are going to stand out as management timber. That doesn't mean they'll bypass a lot of stuff - they still have to get their ticket punched along the way - but they are likely to be identified for special assignments, quicker opportunities.''

Students are selected for the program during spring semester of their junior year. The senior year consists of a rigorous regimen of seminars, conferences, and a business simulation exercise. The core of the program, though, is a summer internship between the student's junior and senior year. Internships were set up this past summer at companies based in regions as far flung as the Los Angeles area, Montana, and Washington, D.C. Many of the companies that availed themselves of the students' services are household names: Exxon, IBM, Diamond Shamrock, Quaker Oats.

In addition to the work itself, many of the students valued the internship as a ''socialization'' process, through which they were initiated into the business world.

Anthony Weber, a senior from Dallas, worked for the Bank of America in southern California. ''I learned a great deal about corporate life,'' he says, ''not only about what goes on on the surface, but about the undercurrents in an office, too.''

Others had preconceived notions dispelled. ''Some of the things I saw surprised me,'' says Karen Handel, from Richardson, Texas. ''Sometimes the board of directors upstairs would call down to our office. Next thing you know, you'd see two grown men running down the hallway to get into the elevator really quick. I thought that only happened on TV shows.''

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No special degree is conferred on CBA Fellows, and all work for the program is done in addition to a student's regular schedule of classes. ''I wouldn't be interested in them if they weren't already busy individuals,'' Schoenfeldt says. ''They look at their schedules, and there isn't room for the program. They go ahead with it anyway. Those are the people we want.''

The senior-year seminar is a combination of programs that seek to develop the student from within as well as from without. The seminar includes presentations by faculty and company specialists in marketing, finance, and other areas and guest speakers from a number of corporations.

There are also sessions devoted to the development of personal skills, including managerial and leadership potential. A business simulation, in which four or five students form a company and compete against other student companies , teaches them to work cooperatively, rely on experts, delegate authority, and set goals.

The selection process for the program is competitive, but grades are a minor component in determining who is finally selected. Schoenfeldt believes good managers and good grades are not inextricably linked. Over 200 students applied to the program; 33 were eventually selected.

Schoenfeldt looked for students with proven managerial effectiveness, whether in salesmanship or running a fast-food restaurant. He doesn't profess to mold managers out of a hunk of clay. ''If you want management talent at the output end of the pipeline, you better start with people with management skills - especially given any finite amount of time, like what we're working with.''

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