A female student strides toward the front of the classroom. Without any prompting, classmates sitting in a semi-circle switch from conversations to spirited applause. They are conditioned to support anyone who is making a speech. After all, it’s soon to be them up there.
“This class has been a big thing for me,” says the speaker, Ranita Pitamber, who has dark hair and a high voice. Before this workshop began, public speaking intimidated her, she tells the class. Unwanted giggles break up the flow of Pitamber’s presentation, and some nervous energy is palpable. But she finishes with poise, and another round of clapping commences.
Bashfulness is not an option on this balmy afternoon in Manhattan, as a dozen students at City University of New York’s Baruch College are asked to recite monologues as Tarzan, a carnival caller and a cinematic villain.
This is no acting class. Most of those enrolled are business students, hungry for top corporate jobs and internships. The co-instructor of the course, Jeff Schwartzman, explains to students the link between these role-playing exercises and the culture they will encounter in the workplace. “Sometimes in business, you’ll be asked to do things that are out of your comfort zone,” he says. “You get to the office and you don’t make the rules anymore.”
Nearly 80 percent of Baruch’s students are enrolled in its school of business. The college has long put on the fast track first-generation college students and recent immigrants who wouldn’t consider paying for a Wharton School education but who want an introduction to the business world -- even as many hold down jobs while enrolled.
Baruch regularly asks recruiters for feedback on their students, and for years the response has been decidedly mixed. In many cases, the interviewers said Baruch students were well-suited for back-room positions and had solid training in economics and business. But the recruiters added that many students lacked the interpersonal skills needed to land jobs that involve client interaction. So this semester, Baruch brought in coaches from Dale Carnegie Training, the well-known public speaking company, to work with students on becoming more attractive job candidates.
“We had a belief that we have really bright, capable students, but they lacked self-confidence and self-esteem,” said Carl Aylman, director of student life at Baruch. “Students don’t come across as well as they’d like. The goal is to polish them up and put them on equal footing with their peers.”
Of Baruch’s 15,756 students, only one in four is a native English speaker. Asian students make up 26 percent of the student body, and Hispanic and black students represent a combined 28 percent. College officials boast that the campus is the most diverse in the country (119 nations represented). Many of Baruch’s foreign-born students lack exposure to the American business environment, says Kathleen Waldron, president of Baruch and a former executive and recruiter at Citibank. “If students don’t have family or friends in business, there’s no other place but here that they can learn about how to interact” in a corporate setting, she said.
Added Aylman: “Some of it is cultural. If you’re an Asian woman, you’re not necessarily used to shaking hands and looking someone in the eye.”
Daniel Ayzenberg, a third-year student who was born in Russia and also lived in Israel, said he used to be hesitant to speak up in a class, even when he knew an answer. “I feel bad afterwards,” he said. “Someone else answers because I’m worried about speaking perfectly. I’m not sure if I’ll make a mistake, so I’d rather stay silent.”
Ayzenberg said he wants to become a tax lawyer, and the Carnegie course is a way for him to feel more confident in his communication skills. He said the class has taught him not to be afraid of making mistakes.
Baruch identified 75 student leaders like Ayzenberg, who has an executive role on the Israel Action Committee, to participate in the semester-long, non-credit program. About 50 chose to participate. Peter Handal, president and chief executive of Dale Carnegie & Associates, said this is the first time the company is working with a college on this type of pilot program.
Schwartzman is part actor, part instructor, part motivational coach during the seminar. It’s his job to keep students from showing any doubt in their communication abilities.
“What do we have to do?” Schwartzman asks during a lesson on attitude in the workplace. “Have an open mind,” responds a student, hesitantly. There is a pause. “Say it louder, like you mean it,” says Schwartzman as he leans toward the student and makes a fist. “Have an open mind!” the student says, more authoritatively.
Ellen Oldfield, the other class co-coach, said she already notices a change in how the students respond to challenges – such as improvisational speaking and quick-fire questioning. Lola Yahaya, a student in the class who is interested in acting, said the seminar has given her the courage to audition for a student play. “I find that I’m able to take more risks and make better decisions,” Yahaya said.
Lisa O’Connor, a corporate communications major at Baruch, said she is looking to pick up leadership skills. The Jamaican-born student is vice president for legislative affairs for the student government and member of a student group that teaches freshman orientation seminars.
The Dale Carnegie program is but one Baruch effort started in the last few years to help students improve their leadership and communication skills. Juan Cano, a Colombian-born student who works at a New York advertising company, is president of the college’s Toastmasters club, which has 45 members who are interested in improving their public speaking.
Cano, who said he was shy growing up, said the speaking practice gained through the club has helped him become a more effective employee. “If I can speak to 90 people [during a club competition], then I can speak in front of five co-workers at an office meeting.”
Waldron, the Baruch president, said the college is looking to expand programs offered by the career center, which already videotapes students doing mock interviews and has alumni who provide feedback. The college offers a workshop on how to act during a business lunch, and Waldron said she is looking to start a golf club that practices off a Manhattan pier so that students can learn the executive’s pastime.
Baruch also needs to change courses to promote better speaking skills, Waldron says. That’s hard to do at a public university where classes don’t just meet around seminar tables, but it’s doable, she insists. For example, a required freshman business course includes an assignment where students break into smaller groups, choose a company, divvy up executive positions, identify a problem and present the solution.
Waldron says it’s possible that classes could incorporate lessons from the the Carnegie course, which on this day, ends as it began, with a student speech. One of the final speakers, Ayzenberg, who has won an award for best acting performance, gives an Academy Award-style acceptance speech in baggy shorts and a plain T-shirt.
Asked by an instructor if he was nervous today, he answers simply: