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Meet the Program Elevating Asheville’s Entrepreneurs

The chamber's NEXT AVL mentors career-minded college students. 

By Kim Madlom on November 30, 2022

Colorful business based illustration

Finding and developing the next generation of talent is key to keeping the Asheville region’s economy strong and growing.

To help meet that need, the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce has launched a program that connects college students interested in pursuing careers in Asheville with working professionals.

Started in 2018, NEXT AVL pairs area college students with local professionals for a nine-month mentorship in their field of interest. Students and mentors apply to participate in the program, which begins each September and involves a commitment of six to eight hours each month. Mentees learn how to present themselves in interviews, how to fine-tune resumes with facts that resonate with future employers, and how to improve their online presence on sites like LinkedIn. In addition, mentors help students extend their networks and offer connections and professional development.

The Chamber partners with the University of North Carolina Asheville, Western Carolina University and the Western North Carolina Human Resource Association to offer NEXT AVL.

Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University

A Pipeline of YPs

“The big idea is that if the student is developing professional connections and networks in the area before they graduate, they can leverage those relationships and find their first job here in Asheville, post-graduation,” says Tiarra Wilkie, the Chamber’s workforce partnership specialist. 

Mark DeVerges, executive recruiter with accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP and a NEXT AVL mentor, knows firsthand the challenges businesses and organizations face in finding talent. NEXT AVL introduces students to the opportunities in Asheville.

“The big idea is that if the student is developing professional connections and networks in the area before they graduate, they can leverage those relationships and find their first job here in Asheville, post-graduation.”

Tiarra Wilkie, Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce

“Building that pipeline on the front is tremendously important,” DeVerges says. “I’ve really enjoyed being a small piece of that. It seemed like a natural fit to be able to help students open some doors, give them some career advice that is helpful to those that are on the cusp of receiving their degrees and would like to see a career path.”

“While college is good to teach you the broader concepts, I think that NEXT AVL is really good at showing you how to hone in on what you want and teach yourself how to develop,” says Kassidy Townsend, a hospitality and tourism major at Western Carolina University. “I think the connections I’ve made with Next AVL will help me in the future.”

Thanks to the mentorship experience, Townsend says she has the confidence to reach out to professionals in her field.

“I feel like I can hold my own,” she says. “I have something to bring to the business because I recognize my own strengths and have learned how to apply them.”

Russ Curtis Class at Western Carolina University
Western Carolina University

Making Introductions

KJ Heggins, who participated in NEXT AVL as a marketing and entrepreneurship student at Western Carolina University, says mentorship helped build connections.

“I believe there are a lot more options than I initially realized, and I feel a lot more comfortable about going into the workforce after graduation,” he says. “I would recommend NEXT AVL for anybody who is trying to get more professional, get more contacts for their major and get more experience before they graduate.”

While open to all students from the participating colleges and universities, NEXT AVL intentionally seeks students who are the first in their family to attend college, from under-resourced communities, from low-income families and students with culturally diverse backgrounds.

The job shadow component of NEXT AVL was valuable to Morgan Thornton, an environmental studies/marine veterinarian student at UNC Asheville.

“My mentor was right on top of it,” Thornton says. “I realized she would be a great asset to me. She helped me with perfecting my LinkedIn and getting me a little more comfortable with speaking to people.”

Thornton’s goal is to work in the region.

“I see myself in Asheville as a person ready to spread diversity in a field that isn’t diverse,” she says. “So, I’m here to pave the way.”

Want to know more?

If you’d like to learn more about the Asheville area, check out the latest edition of Livability Asheville, North Carolina

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