Mark Silvestro – A parent’s concerns about the Southwestern Internship

Mark Silvestro – University of Maryland

11053469_10103634626725758_3988380539294118459_nDuring my American Government class in the large lecture hall of Maryland’s Tydings Hall, I quickly filled out a yellow questionnaire that had something to do with hearing about summer work. Honestly, I wasn’t paying attention. My then-girlfriend at the time, Lisa, was sitting next to me. She was more interesting than class and summer work. I was new to the University of Maryland in 2002, and as a freshman enjoying the college life, the summer was far from my mind. Late one night a week later, I was preoccupied with killing zombies in the new Wolfenstein 3D game when the phone rang and that little yellow paper altered the course of my life forever.

Lisa Anstess: “Are your summer plans free? Do you have time tomorrow to come hear about our program?”

Me: “What? How much did you say? $8,000 for the average first time student? I’ll be there!”

After the hour-long information session that next afternoon, I was excited. “Out of Rockville for the summer? Chance to make a lot of money? Working hard? Sign me up!” Being a freshman, I didn’t have a car on campus; I biked home in the rain, big smile on my face, already spending $10,000 in my head – a guitar, 47 kegs of Miller High Life, and a new stereo that would be sure to blow out windows at 50 yards.

What do your parents think about all this?” Barrett Ward, a district sales manager for Southwestern Advantage, was sitting across from me at the Stamp Student Union during our interview the next day. We had decided to work together, and I had just signed something called a “Dealer Agreement” to seal the deal. Parents? I had totally forgotten about my parents! “Oh, when they hear about all of the resume experience, financial opportunity, travel, getting outside of my comfort zone, and the people skills, they’ll be ecstatic.” Barrett recommended strongly that I call them that night. Why was he making such a big deal about my parents? This was the best opportunity for me. I never considered the possibility that anyone else could think otherwise.

Dirty Harry. This was the nickname that my high school friends gave my dad. “Do you feel lucky punk? Well do ya?” My father embodies the character of a stern civil war military commander – logic, discipline, skepticism, responsibility, justice, black or white, integrity, push-ups at dawn, etc. These qualities, along with a degree in accounting and a Masters in Business Administration, made him very effective in the boardroom as a Chief Financial Officer of a national corporation. In fact, emotions have no impact on how he makes decisions. Despite what his gut instinct tells him, he is very slow to make judgments, only doing so after he has gathered all of the facts, challenged their validity, and drawn conclusions. Biases are irrelevant. “Show me the facts.” Growing up as a little ball of emotion, I found him cold-hearted and distant at times.  It was later in life that I learned to deeply respect his wisdom and integrity.

Mother is the anti-thesis of Dirty Harry. She embodies the character of Mrs. Doubtfire, Mary Poppins, or Julie Andrews from “Sound of Music” – nurturing, patient, heart, emotion, mercy, milk and cookies, smiles, story time, hugs at dawn, etc. I remember that once, after hearing that a friend was coming over at three in the afternoon for a few minutes, she exclaimed “Oh! Should I bake a pie?!” These qualities, along with a masters from the University of Georgetown in French, made her very effective in the classroom as a middle school French and religion teacher. In fact, she can relate to the feelings of others well, empathize, and then nurture. She deals with things according to how she feels about them, relying heavily on her intuition to guide her. If she doesn’t feel right about something, it doesn’t matter what the facts say. “This just doesn’t feel right.” Growing up as a little ball of emotion, I was a mommas boy.

To most parents, the Southwestern internship is an unknown concept when their son or daughter first calls home to explain it, as I did that night after meeting with Barrett. The human mind works in a very predictable pattern when acquiring new information – learning by association. When discovering an unknown concept, the mind looks to currently known concepts, determines similarities between the two, and then draws conclusions on the foreign based on the familiar. For example, if you’ve never heard of a Saturn SC2, I could give you a few familiar concepts (car, two door coupe, cheap, yellow, economical, noisy, chick-magnet) and the mind would quickly have a mental picture. Parents, therefore, take the known concepts of Southwestern (door-to-door, straight commission, unfamiliar locations far away, strangers, sales, 80 hours a week, non-major specific work experience) to form a mental picture of this foreign summer program.

Let’s take a close look at my mother’s thought process when she first heard about Southwestern. In 1986, an environmentalist was knocking door-to door in our neighborhood, raising money to petition the local government for a cleaner water supply. At least that’s what she remembers. When she told the older gentleman at the door that she donated plenty of money at church, he grew furious. “What?! You don’t want to help the environment?! $%#@&!” he shouted. He stormed off. She still vividly remembers that horrible experience 25 years later.

In the late 90s, my brother joined a group of traveling vacuum salespeople who literally dropped him off in a white van on street corners to canvass neighborhoods. John only sold one vacuum, which still sits in our living room closet, during his month or two in the program. The thing is actually pretty sweet, but it did cost $1200. One night after work, the managers took him to a strip club and got him drunk.

For the last 30 years, mom has watched the daily news. The constant flow of negative media invading our household has surely shaped everyone’s view of the planet – Al-Qaeda, Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, terrorists, September 11th, nuclear warheads, Columbine, North Korea, Saddam Hussein, weapons of mass destruction, kidnappings, hijackings, carjackings, baby-carriage-jackings, shootings, strangers with candy, murders, break-ins, Enron, predatory lenders, Communism, Socialism, lying under oath, O.J. Simpson, economic collapse, Wall Street greed, too big to fail, snakes on planes, rocket-propelled grenades, 1.21 gigawatts, improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs, Creed reunion tours, snipers, death penalties, higher taxes, Taliban, new Nicolas Cage movies, tsunamis, Katrina, BP oil spills, Y2K, identity theft, swine flu, foreclosure. To mom, the world, with all its unknowns, all of its dangers, is a scary place. In retrospect, it is also what has made her a great parent – the motherly instinct to protect her young.

As you can imagine, when she heard that Southwestern was (a) door-to-door and (b) away from home, she saw me cruising around in a white van, shouting at people on their door steps, and hitting the local strip clubs with my managers after-hours. Of course, all this would happen only if I wasn’t taken hostage first by a sleeper-cell terrorist. I know this was her thought process because she brought up those past experiences on the phone that night (except the terrorist part). Her gut instinct told her that all of this was terribly wrong. Remember, mom makes decisions based on her intuition, which said “Unsafe! Dangerous! Failure!” “No! Absolutely not. Wait, did you sign something? Oh no!” she yelled. She would not listen to any more explanation. The decision was made. That was in the first two minutes of our conversation. She was hysterical. This was not going well for me.

Dad was matter of fact and unemotional. “It sounds pretty bogus at first glance. You’re telling me they didn’t tell you where you’re going or who you’re going to live with? Have you researched the company? Is there any money up front? How do you buy the product? What are you selling? Do you use your own car? Do they pay gas? Can you write off the miles? How do the managers get paid? How did they get your information anyway? What’s the name of the person you met with? Do you have a copy of what you signed? Is it a contract? Can you leave anytime? Why do they work with just college students? What’s your commission percentage?” He said that he wanted as much information as possible before he’d give his approval. “Frank, I can’t believe you’re even considering this!” Mom said. “I can’t say no to something I know nothing about, Marcia” he replied.

They received a packet of information in the mail. Mom was not happy. Dad was skeptical. They talked to my student manager, Lisa, on the phone to get their questions answered. Mom was not happy. Dad was less skeptical. They watched a VHS tape they received that explained the program. Mom was not happy. Dad was warming up. They drilled me with a thousand questions about why I wanted to do it. Mom was not happy. Dad was intrigued. They met Lisa in person to put a face to the name. Mom was not happy. Dad was satisfied.

After reviewing all of the facts, my parents made several conclusions that were undeniable. The company was legitimate, knocking was safe, and students made money doing it. Dirty Harry said, “Mark, you’re old enough to make your own decision; I just wanted to make sure you reviewed all of the facts before you made that decision. Have a great summer.” Mrs. Doubtfire didn’t want her son to be out of her sight that summer, and really it didn’t matter what Southwestern was. The world was a scary place, and now I was out in it. She couldn’t protect me anymore. She was not happy. Deep down, however, she must have known that she did not have one good reason for me not to leave, and dad was not allowing her to use the classic “I’m your mother and I know what’s best for you” line anymore. When she kept bringing up going back to my old job from high school or looking for an internship in Criminal Justice, I knew that she simply was looking for any avenue to keep me home. Plus, they were “safe.” I was 19 years old. If I didn’t start making my own decisions in college, when would I start making them? When I graduated at age 23? At some point she would have to accept that her son was growing up. That time was now. It was painful for her.

Southwestern Advantage represented the first decision I ever made completely on my own. I did concede to my mother on one request, however. I called her every single night after work the first 4 weeks to inform her that I wasn’t dying in a ditch somewhere. It was not at all easy, but the last week of August in 2002, I returned home from Florida after making $9,600. Mom was happy. Dad was proud. Windows were shattered all over campus by my new stereo. ; )


Southwestern AdvantageMark Silvestro – A parent’s concerns about the Southwestern Internship

7 Comments on “Mark Silvestro – A parent’s concerns about the Southwestern Internship”

  1. Brendan Meyer

    That’s Awesome! I think a lot of parents feel the way your mom did! I know my mom worked in sales for 3 years and she still had her doubts and questions she expressed to me and my student manager. Now a year later she signed the parent signature letter for my sister to come with me with a smile on her face.

  2. Julie Lavender

    Beautifully written and boy can I relate! My Dad, as you know, was the skeptic of all skeptics! It sure is a revalation though, when one can finally make decisions on their own! High five to indepence and autonomy!

  3. emily

    Haha, yeah, those new Nicholas Cage movies ARE scary.

    I can relate to the mom part of the story. Even after going on a 2nd summer she felt the same way (“Are you sure you don’t want to live with us this summer, and work at your high school job?”). But like you said, you have to grow up some time or another and bookmoms around the world are just doing their job- being protective and watching out for their kids…can’t hate on that.

  4. Dan "The Second" Cumming

    Mark….I had no idea you were such a writer. As far as parents go, I can’t really relate, I like mine and all, but I didn’t even really talk to them about my decision to sell books. Daddy: “Don’t you want to get a journalism internship?” Response: “No this is what I want to do. Really.” Daddy: “Well Daniel, ok…Just as long as you..” Me:”K THx bai!!”

    But for the writing, man oh man! artfully done, sir! I especially like the part about how scary the world is. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, well, your words can paint a picture worth a thousand pictures! You keep that up, you’re in danger of having to pursue writing a book.

  5. Dan "The Second" Cumming

    by the way, does that symbol next to my name mean i’m….a unique paper snowflake?

  6. Antoinette Sedillo

    I must agree with Dan– I laughed out loud (hard) on this one. But like all great/effective comedic timing, it’s funny because it’s true! What a great story to read for those of you who’s parents cannot possibly fathom the idea of knocking on doors for a summer, and actually have so much structure to it! And yes, sometimes its not till the very end result(s) that the blinders come off. When it really comes down to it, the person who “knows best” is you.

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