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$500,000 Gift Supports Kent State Students in Unpaid Internships

Posted Feb. 14, 2011

An Illinois-based businessman and Kent State University alumnus has made a $500,000 philanthropic grant to internships for students in the university's College of Business Administration. The awards are given to students who embark on unpaid internships, which can turn out to be a large career boost. But an unpaid internship may be out of reach for those students who cannot afford to leave paid employment to gain valuable experience.

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Walter Van Benthuysen, a 1961 advertising graduate of the college and native of Canton, calls his gift to create dozens of Applied Business Experience Awards "seed money" — for both students, as well as other donors.

"It's seed money for young people in that it gives them the chance to do something they otherwise wouldn't be able to do," he says. "And particularly the students at Kent State, who many have to work full time to be able to attend the university, so it's hard for them to give up whatever job they may have to go off on an internship. This solves that problem for them."

But the lifelong entrepreneur has other intentions for his contribution.

"I hope this will inspire other graduates and other foundations to join the program, to add funds, so it will be a perpetual program," Van Benthuysen adds. "I've funded it for five years, and I hope others, including employers, will see the value of it to keep it going into the future."

More than 60 percent of the internships offered by employers through the College of Business Administration are unpaid, says Kristin Williams, business experience manager for the college. Because many students cannot afford to take such an internship, participation in the program was low — 58 students, or just one percent, in spring 2008. The college's near-term goal is to build that number to 500 students per year by 2013.

"Increasing the number of students pursuing internships is one of our high-priority initiatives," says Yank Heisler, dean of the College of Business Administration. "In this difficult labor market, we want to give our graduates every advantage when they enter the workforce. We're so grateful that Walt and his wife, Judy, are helping to end the financial barriers that keep our students from pursuing these opportunities."

The Van Benthuysen Applied Business Experience Awards offer $2,000-$4,000 merit-based scholarships for students, depending upon how many hours the internship requires. Students in full-time internships are offered $4,000 because they are the most likely to be unable to work another job to support themselves during the semester.

"The program is established around merit first," explains Williams. "So the financial incentive is to provide opportunities for high-quality students with financial need. We're not looking to pay simply because employers don't, or can't."

The first students in the program are interning with such businesses as the Cleveland Cavaliers; Via680, a technology startup in Youngstown and Global ThinkTank Institute, in Stow.

"With a 45-minute commute and gas prices rising, this award could not come at a better time," says Jaclyn Gunther, a new intern with the Cavaliers who quit her part-time retail job to accept the full-time, unpaid offer. "Academically, the award allows me to focus more on what I am learning in the workplace, and I don't have the burden of worrying about finances."

Walter Van Benthuysen began working for the Campbell Soup Company following graduation and military service, and he has been employed in marketing and management roles in the food industry for his entire career. As his career developed, he became chief executive officer for a number of food companies and upon retirement from day-to-day management responsibility became an executive adviser to Wind Point Partners, a private equity firm based in Chicago. He also serves on the board of Hearthside Food Solutions, a leading provider of granola and snack bars, cookies and crackers.

With his wife, Judy, he has four children and nine grandchildren. The couple founded American Friends of Our Armed Forces, a not-for-profit charity with the mission of meeting the needs of America's military personnel and their families.

The pair previously endowed the Walter and Judy Van Benthuysen Medallion Scholarship at Kent State. This current gift is another way to give back to his alma mater and its students.

"I've had the opportunity in my career to be involved with young people coming out of school, including interns," he says. "I saw a real value to not just the intern, but the company and industry. It seemed to me a gift of this size would help a person develop business and personal skills. Internships help young people see the world as it is, which is helpful in building business solutions. And I think through this learning program, we can provide Kent State business students with a competitive advantage during their post-graduate employment interview process."