Warren Kelley, the interim director of the University Career Center, said Southwestern Company can no longer recruit on the campus after two students complained it misrepresented the nature of its internships as business positions instead of a sales jobs.
The company said its internships give students both valuable skills and an opportunity to earn thousands of dollars in a single summer.
Southwestern hasn’t been allowed to recruit on the campus since 2005 but the university has continued to receive complaints against the company. It still recruits university students in other ways and uses facilities at nearby University of Maryland University College. Last year, according to the company, 30 university students made more than $300,000 selling company products.
But two students who complained said the way in which they were recruited was misleading.
“The whole process was a manipulation,” sophomore kinesiology major Alana Isaacson said. “I was deceived into coming by a vague and misleading phone call, and once I got there they even said that this was an information session to be considered for an interview, after calling the meeting an interview over the phone.”
Stories like Isaacson’s abound on Southwesterncompanytruth.com, which portrays the company’s summer program as an emotionally damaging, though potentially high-paying, experience. Some of the website’s claims include that students are “brainwashed” and forced to put their physical and emotional health at risk.
After reading the site, Isaacson complained to the Career Center because she believed the job sounded unsafe for students.
However, Southwestern is taking legal action against the site because it claims many of the “truths” stated on the site are false.
According to Southwestern, first-year sellers make an average of about $8,000 in a summer, which is usually 13 weeks long. Regional Sales Manager Lester Crafton said the university’s unwillingness to communicate with Southwestern stems from a negative bias toward the company. Past incidents include Southwestern’s tendency to over-recruit in the 1970s, a university employee’s outrage when a former Southwestern employee hugged her following a meeting and the 2005 student complaint. Crafton said this was due to a miscommunication about the informational session.
“I think the Career Center’s intent is legitimate,” Crafton said. “But they are trying to protect all students from a job that’s not right for some students.”
When students are selected for the Southwestern internship, they start their summer by going to “sales school” for 5 days in Nashville, Tenn., where they are taught product knowledge, ethics, self-presentation, safety and business management. They are then sent to a distant location where they live with host families and work long hours selling educational books and CDs to families.
The students, who are not directly company employees but rather independent contractors, keep 40 percent of each sale.
One of those students, senior-to-be psychology major Kaela Kreysa, said she made nearly $40,000 last summer, enough money to allow her to take the school year off and spend the time vacationing in Hawaii.
“It feels incredible to be financially independent and able to do anything that I want,” Kreysa wrote in an e-mail. “I wanted a change of pace. Thankfully my success with Southwestern has given me a lot of money and I wanted to use part of it in a way that would help me to learn more while being present and enjoying.”
Kreysa said Southwestern isn’t for everyone, but for those who enjoy a challenge, Southwestern’s program offers an unmatched combination of learning, sales experience and life lessons.
“I am a psychology major and I cannot think of a better way to learn more about people than to talk to thousands of them in their homes during a summer,” Kreysa wrote. “Eventually in my life I would have hoped to gain all the skills I have from Southwestern, but I can’t imagine a better way to gain them all so quickly.”
Besides Isaacson, the other student who complained about the company’s recruiting, freshman animal science major Sarah Margerison, said it misrepresented itself as a legitimate internship when it was actually a sales job.
“This was supposed to be a business internship, where you sold a product,” Margerison said. “It sounded a lot like the door-to-door fundraisers you do for your soccer team or something when you’re little.”
Crafton, a University of North Carolina ’99 alumnus who made more than $30,000 selling products for Southwestern during in his final summer in college, said while Southwestern has become more selective over the years to hire only qualified students for the job, three in 10 first-year student sellers drop out of the program.
“Do some people fail? Yes. What’s the proof? Southwesterncompanytruth.com exists. Do some people succeed? Yes. What’s the proof? I exist,” Crafton said.
Kreysa, one of those success stories, thinks it’s ridiculous that the Career Center doesn’t encourage students to check out the Southwestern summer program.
“If a counselor truly understood what a student could gain from the Southwestern experience, she would recommend it all the time,” Kreysa wrote.