As a young man in his native Sri Lanka, Suri Suriyakumar was apprenticed to be a marine engineer. Deciding that sailing was not for him, he soon switched to business.
“I never went to college, so I had no formal training,” he said. “I had to fight every step of the way.”
However, Suriyakumar had one important advantage: He had two mentors.
Suriyakumar, who moved to the United States in 1989, is a Board of Councilors member with the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. He has participated as a mentor in the Gateway Internship Program since its inception three years ago.
The program provides USC Dornsife undergraduates with opportunities to pursue internships, benefit from a personal mentor and take an academic leadership skills course.
Suriyakumar, who offers information management to the construction industry, is one of 31 mentors who counseled 38 undergraduates participating in this year’s program.
I’m a big believer in internships because they create a different dynamic in a company.
“Gateway keeps me young and on my toes,” he said. “And knowing I can help young people with their careers gives me a very high level of personal satisfaction,” he said.
“I’m a big believer in internships because they create a different dynamic in a company. It’s very important to bring in young people to revitalize your workforce. In addition, you learn a lot from them because they have a different perspective of your business and what it will look like in the future.
“If you don’t stay connected to what is happening today in the business world,” he added, “you become archaic pretty fast.”
Suriyakumar has an important piece of advice for the undergraduates he mentors.
“Students who are high-achievers in college sometimes take it for granted they’ll be successful in the working world. That’s not necessarily so. Being successful is all about emotional intelligence — understanding and communicating with people and learning to be part of a team.”
Suriyakumar’s most recent mentee, Mark Lee, a junior majoring in psychology at USC Dornsife with a joint major at the USC Marshall School of Business, interned in the finance and accounting department of AppleOne, a national employment agency.
Sorting through years of outstanding checks and determining their validity, Lee initially found the work dull. However, by coaching him to connect with people and study how the business worked, Suriyakumar encouraged Lee to see his internship in a new light.
“I helped Mark realize he was there to learn much more than just how to make the necessary calls and earn the hourly wage,” Suriyakumar said. “Mark was there to understand the people and the business. As a result, he became more engaged, and the job was less boring for him. When he enters the business world, he’ll find this will have been a valuable experience.”
Lee said he found Suriyakumar’s views on creating opportunities for oneself particularly motivating.
“Suri came to the U.S. with very little, not even a college degree,” Lee said. “He worked hard and started his own company, now one of the largest in his industry. The way Suri approaches failure and opportunity is refreshing, and his zest for opportunity really inspired me to rethink my own career opportunities.”
The importance of mentors
Gateway mentor Nancy Longo ’85, MA ’93, PhD ’99, MSW ’06 agreed with Suriyakumar on the importance of mentoring.
“It’s important at all stages of life, but particularly for college students as they make the major transition from adolescence into adulthood,” she said. “Mentoring cannot be underrated.”
A member of the core faculty at Capella University, an online university based in Minnesota, Longo teaches graduate-level educational and developmental psychology. She earned a bachelor’s in international relations from USC Dornsife, a master’s and Ph.D. in education from the USC Rossier School of Education and an MSW in social work from USC School of Social Work.
Longo got involved in Gateway because she wanted a more personal mentoring experience working with undergraduates.
A professional’s point of view
“I hope to provide an objective, professional point of view from someone who has already experienced the struggle of making the transition from college to the work world,” Longo said. “I aim to be someone my mentees can call up and ask for advice without worrying about being judged.”
“Mentoring is invigorating,” Longo said. “It’s about helping college students understand professional relationships and how to maintain them.”
Suriyakumar said that one of the things he impresses upon mentees at USC is how fortunate they are to be getting an education of this caliber.
“Compared to the millions out there like me who had no formal training or education,” he said.
“Being at USC is a fantastic opportunity, so spread your wings and learn as much as you can.”