Focus on Alumni
Soaring to New Corporate Heights
UT Tyler Gradute Has Something to "Quack" About
Miranda Azzam didn’t just climb the corporate ladder. She flew up, so to speak.
Less than four years after graduating from The University of Texas at Tyler, the 26-year-old already has management-level responsibilities at the corporate offices of insurance giant Aflac in Columbus, Ga.
Azzam supervises the company’s Web employer branding campaign, tracks employment efforts, helps launch the summer internship program and oversees the insurer’s entire college recruiting efforts. Last fall she even made the cover of “BusinessWeek’’ … alongside a certain celebrity duck.
Aflac, which insures more than 50 million people worldwide, was listed among “The Best Places to Launch a Career” in the national magazine’s cover story. But the focus was on young employees like Azzam who are gaining responsibilities earlier than ever before as companies go lean in today’s uncertain economy.
Aflac’s famous mascot may be better known for his waddle and quack than an ability to fly, but Azzam certainly exemplifies young graduates who are soaring to new heights in America’s corporate world.
Open Door Through SIFE
An August 2006 UT Tyler graduate with a bachelor of business administration degree in management, Azzam was offered a position with Aflac even before she walked across the stage in cap and gown.
She credits UT Tyler with landing her job. “Really, one of the things I’m most thankful for on the UT Tyler campus was the Students in Free Enterprise group, which is what allowed me to meet Aflac.’’
SIFE is an international nonprofit organization that partners leaders in business with higher education to mobilize university students to make a difference in the community while refining their business skills.
SIFE students are charged with developing outreach projects that improve the quality of life for people in need. Teams from different colleges and universities present their plans at regional and national competitions, which are evaluated by actual business leaders serving as judges. The program emphasizes leadership and social responsibility.
At one of those competitions, Azzam caught the attention of recruiters from Aflac. “A few months prior to graduation, I interviewed and had the job lined up. I graduated August 7th and started the job August 28th,” she said.
Aflac does a significant amount of work with Students in Free Enterprise, said Jon Sullivan, Aflac manager of external communications. “We find a lot of talent like Miranda doing that.”
Azzam quickly learned the ropes in a special rotation/mentorship program within the company and settled into the college recruiter job.
But when her supervisor moved to another position last year, the company chose to award Azzam with the additional responsibilities rather than hire a replacement.
“This was the kind of opportunity, the progression that you want,” Azzam said. “They want to see me successful and by giving me responsibilities at the right time and in the right doses, this was the perfect timing. Learning to lead people and delegate is something I’ve never been able to do until now.”
As companies streamline operations and try to save on big salaries, entry level employees are finding more opportunities to advance. Those who are willing to go the extra mile can position themselves for even greater future success as middle management jobs open up.
In fact, business leaders say they are looking for graduates with good foundational skills on which to build for the future.
“Aflac typically wants to hire good, young talent and groom them so that they’re here long-term … so that Aflac gets the benefit of strong, experienced workers down the road,” Sullivan said. “Miranda is the poster woman for this. She came here and displayed talent, someone in her department nurtured her and now she finds herself on the cover of a national magazine.”
Business must be in the blood for the native East Texan. Her parents, Sam and Debbie, both own insurance businesses in the Longview area. Her older brother, Tony, a 2007 UT Tyler graduate with a B.B.A. in management, operates his own insurance office in the area. And younger brother Neil is studying finance in college.
A Foundation for Success
Azzam said she has learned that a “can-do attitude” is so important for success. She said, “If you’re coming to work hard, it’s amazing how much you’ll be able to do.”
Students also need to make sure they prepare for the challenges. Two critical steps to success are acquiring the right skills for one’s profession through education and connecting with others in the field, she said.
“I think one of the most important things for college graduates are those technical, analytical skills so you can come in and really start contributing. And, to get the job, you’ve got to find a way to build connections and network. That’s a big piece of it.”
Azzam said her time at UT Tyler helped her on both counts.
The university, she said, “was a great experience with small classes, a very informal kind of setting with a lot of discussion between students and professors. UT Tyler offers a quality education, but in a smaller setting.”
Residing in Longview while attending UT Tyler, Azzam took classes at the university’s Tyler and Longview campuses. The UT Tyler Longview University Center made it possible for her to work at her father’s insurance office during the day and take some night classes closer to home.
Her instructors at UT Tyler included Dr. Tammy Cowart, assistant professor of business law and SIFE faculty adviser.
“Miranda always stood out,’’ said Dr. Cowart. “She always exuded a great deal of self-confidence, which I think is a large part of why she’s so successful today.”
In fact, Azzam helped recruit Dr. Cowart to get involved as faculty adviser.
Even for highly motivated students like Azzam, membership in organizations like SIFE is beneficial, Dr. Cowart said.
“SIFE is actually the largest university student organization in the world,” she said. “The organization is about taking the skills you learn in the classroom and putting them to practice, either on campus or out in the community. The seven main criteria are financial literacy, teaching people about financial literacy, environmental system ability, entrepreneurship, market economics, business ethics and individual success skills.”
Students find local needs that address these criteria, develop projects that meet the needs, implement the projects and measure the success of those projects, the professor said, noting that this is an important skill set to a prospective employer.
That’s why corporate sponsors attend the competitions where students present their projects – with the goal of finding talent.
Azzam presented at a competition in Dallas and a judge from Aflac approached her and asked to see her resume, Dr. Cowart recalled. “Business representatives go to recruit students. And they are looking solely for SIFE students.”
Now that Azzam has the role of college recruiter, she keeps in touch with Dr. Cowart and the UT Tyler SIFE team at the Dallas competition each year.
“I think Miranda is a proud alumna. She has remained really interested and involved,’’ Dr. Cowart said.
The professor added, “When I saw her on the cover of “BusinessWeek,’’ I was so excited. Miranda is such a neat young woman and so talented.’’