By Susan Shinn, Catawba News Service
"Dad says not to worry about it but I want to know."
Wise words from an undergraduate who attended Catawba College's Life-Skills 101 series on Feb. 18-19 in the Hurley Room on campus. The first night focused on personal finance, with the second night centered around alumni networking and dining and business etiquette.
The series evolved several years ago from a session targeted specifically for athletes, according to Margaret Faust '89, the college's director of alumni and parent relations. Now the sessions are open to any student and include dinner with alumni on the second night — at which table manners are emphasized and explained.
"My dad's in finance. He told me it would be something good for me to come and learn about," said sophomore Nikki Adams of New Jersey.
Ashley Wheeler, a sophomore from Charlotte, probably summed up the feeling of many students, when it comes to finances: "I have no idea what's going on."
Speaker for the first session on personal finance was Karen Bell Gaskill '92, whose daughter Jessica, a junior from Salisbury, attended both nights.
"None of us wants to go to college to do hard labor the rest of our lives," Gaskill told her audience. Both her parents, she said, each worked two jobs to support her family.
Gaskill listed a variety of topics, and then discussed the ones in which students were most interested. These included credit cards, pay stubs, credit reports, retirement plans, flexible spending accounts, health savings accounts and budgeting. College students can be especially vulnerable to credit card debt.
But they still must earn a good credit score.
"Don't accept a credit card if you're not comfortable with understanding the terms," Gaskill said.
Gaskill noted that it takes diligence to pay bills on time. "It comes down to budgeting and living within your means," she said. She suggested using the 70-10-10-10 formula: 70 percent of income toward bills, 10 percent toward retirement, 10 percent to saving and 10 percent to charity.
Gaskill reminded the students that when they graduate, their lifestyles are bound to improve when they enter the working world.
"If you start off in debt, you're just gonna be strapped," she said.
"You're just gonna limit your freedom."
Other alumni also gave valuable advice the next evening during a dinner on business and dining etiquette. Many of the alumni were in town for a quarterly meeting of the Alumni Association's Board of Directors.
"There's going to be a point where you have to present yourself to others," said Shannon McCoy '03. She noted that communications was the best class you could take at Catawba College in order to prepare for public speaking.
Meredith Abramson '96 advocated taking advantage of small class sizes and forging relationships with professors. "They're here to help you now and they'll help you later," she said of the faculty.
Clarke Leichte '91 counseled students not to get hung up on a particular major, but to explore other options offered by a liberal arts institution.
Being prepared doesn't stop when you graduate, said Colan Potemra '03. "Make sure you're reading," he said. "I can always tell who's prepared in meetings."
The alumni agreed that making a good impression at all times is important.
"I got my job on the football field," said Eddie Wall '05, who was approached by the friend of an alumnus about a banking job. He's still in banking. "Do the little things right and everything will take care of itself," he said.
More than ever, the alumni group said, networking is key.
"The only way that you're going to get a job now is through someone you know," said Elisa Alfieri '07. "Talk to as many people as you can."
"People see things within you," McCoy noted. "Someone else saw a quality in Eddie."
"Always put your best foot forward." Kent Rabon '76 says he's witnessing the strongest competition for jobs he's ever seen. If you don't have an "in," he said, "you're going to be up against several hundred applicants for a high-quality position."
In the business environment, said Tony Klubert '86, "the dress code still counts."
"I will Google you," Potemra said. "The beer pong pictures will have to go."
Board members advised interviewing as much as possible, to gain experience and to get comfortable with the process.
Klubert was one of 35,000 applicants for one position. He got the job.
"I got the job because I was not stressed out," he said. "Tomorrow is coming whether you get the job or not."
Kali McCullough, a senior from Tennessee, asked about the need for French and Spanish in the workplace.
Scott Gaskill '94 works for Food Lion, whose parent company is based in Belgium, and noted, "It would benefit me if I could speak French."
"Spanish is a value-added part of who you are," Leichte said. "That will keep you there when somebody else may need to be let go."
The days of working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. are long gone, the panel agreed.
"Be on time, be polite and be helpful," said Vickie Hardy '81.
"Be polite to everyone," Alfieri emphasized.
Don't be the person to jump into the pool at the company convention, Potemra said. Instead, be the person who stands by and laughs.
The panel also agreed that handwritten notes still mean something.
Wall said he wrote the bank's board of trustees when he was promoted and thanked them.
An area fraught with potential faux pas can be the interview that takes place over a meal, Faust said. It's never about the meal, she explained. It's how you handle yourself.
Faust distributed illustrations of various table settings. She then held up both hands in the "OK" signal — a trick, she explained, to remember that your bread plate is the one to your left (the left hand looks like a "b") and your drink goes on your right (the right hand looks like a "d").
Potemra suggested ordering a dish that's not messy, and Leichte advised taking much smaller than normal bites.
The panel agreed: never underestimate the power of bad table manners.
The alumni and students then shared a delicious dinner together — all using their best manners, of course.
Alumni participating in the dinner were Meredith Abramson '96, Elisa Alfieri '07, Chuck Farthing '75, Scott Gaskill '94, Vickie Hardy '81, Tony Klubert '86, Clarke Leichte '91, Phyllis Little '66, Shannon McCoy '03, Colan Potemra '03, Kent Rabon '76, Dan Ryan '09, Debbie Shelton '71, Eddie Wall '05.
Freelance writer Susan Shinn is a full-time student at Catawba College.
PHOTOS: Life-Skills 101