CHICAGO – With neatly pressed shirts and polished shoes, students enrolled in a rigorous Northern Illinois University marketing class modeled after Donald Trump’s reality show “The Apprentice” look less like college students and more like anxious business executives.

And they take their work almost as seriously as executives. One student, after being eliminated from the competition much in the way Trump’s would-be apprentices are fired from his NBC program, walked out of the room in tears, shielding her face with a notebook to prevent a student film crew from chronicling her reaction.

The students are assigned a task each week, and their performance is videotaped for review. They then attend a tense boardroom meeting where two Trump stand-ins – NIU alumni who run their own companies – decide who to cast out.

For assigned tasks, students have collected $10,905 for the USO, created an advertisement for the student insurance office and sold football tickets at prices greater than face value, raising cash for an alumni and visitors center.

The course, the brainchild of university officials who wanted to bring “real world” experience to the classroom, has caught Trump’s attention. He recently lauded the program on the radio, delighting university officials who had notified him of the class weeks ago and heard nothing in return.

Unlike the reality show, where contestants live in a swanky New York apartment and have a chance to land a job with “The Donald” himself, the winners each receive $1,000 scholarships, an A in the class and bragging rights. The next best team also receives A’s but with half the scholarship money. Students fired after the first competition get a C but can improve their grade by writing a paper. Others let go along the way get a B.

The class, which started with 16 students Aug. 23, will end Monday with a winning team of five students.

Funding for the course, including the $7,500 in scholarship money, came from companies and individuals who made contributions specifically to the “Marketing Apprentice” class.

Six students have been “fired” from class or, in most cases, handed an old cowboy boot and asked to leave the room. The much-loathed leather pink slip, which rests in the middle of the boardroom table, has become a dreaded part of each meeting. One of the two Trump stand-ins decided to use the boot to bring levity to a tense moment, fearing the words “you’re fired” may be too much for the students.

But even in being booted, there can be hurt feelings.

Robert Oaf, 21, a senior let go at the end of the second class, had a difficult time accepting his dismissal.

Once they are fired, students are required to have a one-on-one meeting with a faculty adviser to make sure they are all right. The debriefing also gives them the chance to talk about their performance and learn what worked and what did not.

Oaf, who said he came to appreciate the lessons learned from the course, was still required to come to class each Monday to follow his classmates’ progress. All students in the class are invited to meet with faculty and staff at a local bar after each boardroom meeting to network and unwind.

Apprentice class can dwarf the amount of time students spend on other courses.

“It’s a tremendous amount of pressure,” said Dave Haas, 22, who made it to the final round. “This isn’t the only thing I have going on.”

Haas, a resident assistant who works part time at a restaurant and is a member of a fraternity, said he spent 20 hours on the class one week.

But the work has started to pay off, he said. A company that heard about his involvement with the class approached him about a job.


In an effort to make the class as authentic as possible, students from the school’s communications department have been documenting each task in a tape that is shown to the “Trumps” so they may determine who should get the ax.

After going to the tape, one of the Trumps, Dean DeBiase, told one group it was “working way too hard and not smart enough.”

“You’re learning the right lessons,” he told the group. “You’re just forgetting some of them along the way.”

After the weekly critique, the students are given the chance to make a plea for their jobs, telling judges why they shouldn’t be fired.

While the TV show often leads contestants to verbally batter one another as they desperately try to stay in the game, students in the class are more discreet; they vote off team members by ballot. Their suggestions are taken into consideration, but the judges make the final calls.

Joe Cullinane, another of the Trumps, said he and DeBiase worked to challenge the students. Cullinane said the two merged the teams, split them up, changed elements of their assigned tasks and handed the group over to two new Trump stand-ins to keep it interesting.

Each twist will help prepare the students for what they will face during the course of their careers, he said, and so far, all of them have handled the changes with aplomb.

“I would hire any one of them,” Cullinane said.

(c) 2004, Chicago Tribune.

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AP-NY-10-06-04 1358EDT

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