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Leadership lessons from one of Penn State’s most decorated alumni

Schreyer Scholar Nate Carey’s experience in the Society of Distinguished Alumni Mentoring Program
15 April 2024
Alumnus Tom Ulmer and undergraduate Nate Carey
Penn State Distinguished Alumnus Tom Ulmer (L) has spent the 2023-24 academic year mentoring Schreyer Scholar Nate Carey (R). Images provided.

Nearly three years into his time at Penn State, Schreyer Scholar Nate Carey has taken on several different roles that have challenged, shaped and refined his leadership skills. One experience, though, has provided Carey with especially impactful lessons in how to helm an organization.

In spring 2023 Carey applied for the Society of Distinguished Alumni (SDA) Mentoring Program and was accepted into the cohort that began later that fall. Available exclusively to students in Schreyer Honors College, the SDA Mentoring Program pairs current Schreyer Scholars with Distinguished Alumni Award recipients — the top honor Penn State bestows upon its high-achieving graduates.

Applications open for the program in mid-January each year, with approximately 30 Schreyer Scholars accepted and matched with a mentor.

Carey, a biotechnology major who is working on an integrated undergraduate/graduate degree, said he was drawn to the program because of what it could offer beyond classroom learning.

“My undergraduate research and time as a workforce development specialist with the Center of Excellence in Industrial Biotechnology (CoEIB) showed me that the most valuable lessons in college often don’t come from textbooks, but from mentors,” Carey said.

“When I saw the SDA Mentoring Program application, I immediately thought of everything I learned from Dr. Melissa Rolls (my research principal investigator) and Wendy Oakes (my supervisor at CoEIB),” he added. “I knew that finding an SDA mentor would unlock valuable knowledge for my career and personal life. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.”

Schreyer Honors College was two years old in 1999 when it partnered with Penn State’s Society of Distinguished Alumni to offer the SDA Mentoring Program. Carey and his fellow mentees who formed the cohort that began in fall 2023 helped to mark the program’s 25-year anniversary.

Donna Meyer, the Honors College’s director of student programs, began working with the SDA Mentoring Program in 2001. She has seen firsthand how beneficial it has been for both the Schreyer Scholars and the alumni mentors.

“The Scholars gain insight from the professional careers and life experiences of some of Penn State’s highest achievers, while the Distinguished Alumni enjoy a unique opportunity to connect with the University and help shape the future of talented student leaders,” Meyer said. “The best part is that the mentors and their proteges often remain in touch beyond the program’s one-year commitment.”

Meyer works closely with Distinguished Alumni and SDA Mentoring Program co-chairs Régine Lambrech and Rick Riegel to craft mentor/mentee pairs that will have a lasting, positive impact.

Each year, members of the Society of Distinguished Alumni are invited to serve in the mentorship program. Those who volunteer are ultimately matched with accepted applicants based on their professional experience and shared interests. Once the pairing has been determined, it becomes the Schreyer Scholar’s responsibility to initiate the conversation with their mentor and lay the groundwork for their collaborative relationship.  

Thomas Ulmer, a 1996 graduate with a bachelor of science degree in administration of justice, received the Distinguished Alumni Award in 2016. His “decorated career as an officer in the United States Navy, his service to country and his dedication to humanitarian assistance operations” highlight why he was chosen for the honor.  

“I received a call from [former Penn State] President [Eric] Barron, which is not something you usually receive or expect, so I was caught a little off-guard,” said Ulmer when asked about his reaction to learning he was selected as a Distinguished Alumni. “I was excited to celebrate the recognition with my friends and family, and I was grateful and humbled to receive such an honor from Penn State.

“Not long after receiving the award, I was introduced to the SDA Mentoring Program,” Ulmer continued. “Wanting to give back to the Penn State community that helped shape my career and my personal growth, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity.”

That decision set Ulmer and Carey on the path to connect through the mentoring program, and the relationship they’ve built this academic year has enriched them both. Ulmer’s Navy background has been especially beneficial to Carey who is enrolled as an Army ROTC cadet.  

“With [Tom’s] experience, most of our conversations are focused on strategies to improve my performance and learning as a leader,” Carey said. “He’s had valuable insight into the military lifestyle in the U.S. and abroad, which has translated into important career planning on my end.”

According to Carey, research has always been a part of his career plan. Though, through his studies at Penn State, involvement with CoEIB and the Society for Industrial Biotechnology and his work with the bioprocess optimization software company BioReact he has “discovered that many world-class researchers spin out their discoveries into successful business ventures.”

Finding success in entrepreneurship and a competitive field like biotechnology requires significant technical expertise, people skills and more. In his mentor role, Ulmer can lean on his experience building cohesive teams of Navy sailors and Marines for missions in the Middle East to help prepare Carey for managing working relationships.

“Nate and I have talked about how, as leaders, we like to 'hold' responsibilities close to us, especially in smaller, potentially more fragile organizations,” Ulmer said. “Trust is a hard thing, and I have struggled with it many times. From time-to-time, leaders will be burned by trusting people. However, we can’t stop trusting people, delegating responsibility or assigning tasks.”

Carey said that Ulmer’s advice has helped “steer his decision making” in his role as outgoing president of Penn State’s Society for Industrial Biotechnology and as a BioReact team member. Their time together has also influenced Carey’s plans on how he’d like to give back in the future.

“Along with Tom, I’ve had mentors in the academic, industrial and military areas, and they’ve all expressed the importance of giving back,” Carey said. “With that in mind, I’m certain that I will be a resource for the future scientists and engineers around me.”