Helping launch careers through internship support

August 19, 2020

College of Business alumnus Michael Porter ('75 B.B.A.) and Lelahni Wessinger ('75 B.A., '83 M.A., UM-Ann Arbor) discuss the new John L. Wessinger Internship Scholarship and the importance of student internships.

Lelahni Wessinger ('75 B.A., '83 M.A., UM-Ann Arbor) established the John L. Wessinger Internship Scholarship in honor of her late husband, the former head of the Business Internship Program in the College of Business. We recorded a conversation she had with alumnus Michael Porter (’75 B.B.A.) about the key role her husband played in launching the careers of many of his students (including Michael) and why she felt it was important to preserve this legacy. Watch the video or read the transcript below.

Michael Porter: Hi, I'm Michael Porter. I graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn in 1975 with a Bachelor of Business Administration degree. I'm very pleased to be able to talk today to Lelahni Wessinger about the John Wessinger Business Internship Scholarship that she is funding on behalf of future UM-Dearborn business students. Lelahni, it's great to see you.

Lelahni Wessinger: Hi, Michael. It's wonderful to see you looking well and I'm looking forward to catching up with you a little bit.

MP: Thank you. Tell us a little bit about the business scholarship and why you and John decided to take this action.

LW: Well, John early in his career worked as Chair of the Business Internship Program, early ‘70s. And this is what he was doing when I met him, he had previously been with the Ford Motor Company in Labor Relations his first job out of college, which must have been a baptism of fire--Labor Relations at the River Rouge plant. [laughs]

john wessinger
john wessinger
John Wessinger (1937-2010), former chair of the Business Internship Program

But he found himself as Chair of this Business Internship Program, which was kind of fledgling at that point in time, and he strove to place students in authentic business experiences throughout the Detroit Metropolitan area. He was very interested in helping those students that showed a willingness to get out there and do the hard work to get ahead in the business world. And these students, many of them first time student generation in their family, many of them immigrant students, many of them coming now from families that were able to make their livelihood through manufacturing assembly lines which had been disappearing in Michigan, which makes this scholarship more important than ever right now. But that time at UM-Dearborn, his time mentoring students, was one of the high points of his career. When he looked back over his life that stood out as the jewel, and he was very proud of those students that went on to do well, like yourself, Michael. You were one of the students he was most proud of. You had this wonderful corporate career that culminated at DTE, I think you were vice president, and then went on to mentor young people yourself in the Detroit area. So he was always very proud of you, Michael.

MP: Thank you. You know, John had great passion for the students that he was mentoring and certainly I was a beneficiary of that. I thought he was just an absolutely remarkable man. He was one of the first people--in fact, he was the first person that I met when I came to UM-Dearborn. I transferred from General Motors Institute, today it's now called Kettering University, but John was always somebody that you could talk to about whatever was on your mind, be it something going on in the classroom or elsewhere. And he was also not just a comforting voice, but he knew how to kick your butt if you needed it kicked a little bit too--and I benefited from that, too! [laughs]

LW: [laughs] We were married thirty-four years, I know all about that.

MP: There you go. But, you know, the internship program really was probably the most important part of the U of M Dearborn curriculum that made me want to transfer to UM-Dearborn when I did. And under his leadership it helped just countless numbers of young men and women find themselves professionally and I'm personally very, very grateful for your generosity.

LW: Where did you wind up interning, where were you placed?

MP: I interned at Ford tractor operations. Back then, Ford was still in the tractor business and I got an internship with them in the sales and marketing area and had a really wonderful experience. And John made us write a paper about our internship experiences, I still remember that. And it was a great opportunity for me to take that semester and get some more practical experience and it certainly helped me when the time came to interview for jobs and helped me, you know, gave me a leg up on the start of my career.

LW: Totally because now you've got letters of recommendation, you've got actual experience to point to and maybe you might even get rehired by that same business that provided the internship. I don't know how many internships these days are paid internships. It seems to me that they are generally unpaid. Regardless, this scholarship is there to help any student who has the drive, who needs the financial aid. There's no restrictions on your studies, just that you go through this business internship program. And John believed in the program and launching young students.

 As I said, he left the university reluctantly when he decided, well, he'd acquired enough real estate in Ann Arbor, and he had to devote himself to being a full-time entrepreneur in Ann Arbor, he had to make a choice. Because intellectually, he said, “I would stay, definitely, at Dearborn.” He loved the Detroit Economic Club, he loved the contacts that he made with all different kinds of businessmen around Detroit creating these opportunities for students in banking and accounting, in manufacturing. And I would really like to see manufacturing lead the pack on U of M’s focus in the future because I've been making masks. I'll show you one, this is how I've been spending my time. [laughs]

MP: I'm going to have to get one of those.

LW: You want one, I'll make you one. Okay, I'll send it to you. But everything to make those comes from China and I've had to wait months upon months just to get ten yards of elastic that comes just thrown in a bag. White thread, flannel--we really need to work on this problem in the business school. And I think these young minds can really be put to the test to come up with some new solutions, to get the manufacturing back in this country, how to make money manufacturing, how to pay a living wage manufacturing. These issues are difficult but that's our business challenge coming up.

MP: Well, I absolutely agree with you that the business internships are a hugely valuable piece of the overall education and that U of M Dearborn has an unparalleled history in terms of helping their students find valuable internships, and what you're doing is a fully appropriate coda to John's legacy, and it's going to help U of M Dearborn students current and future for as far as the future will take us, and I thank you very, very much for your generosity.

LW: Thank you, Michael. So great to hear from you. I wish you and your family the best. Go Blue!

MP: Go Blue!

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