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University of Missouri

Tigers Find Their Calling

Mizzou students raise thousands for student scholarships.

Saskia Robertson

Saskia Robertson is one of about 70 students who work the phones each semester for the Tiger Calling Club, raising nearly $600,000 a year for student scholarships. Photo by Rob Hill.

The two dozen students are squeezed in a narrow cinder block room a bit smaller than a mobile home. They wear telephone headsets, sit in front of computer monitors, and wait for the ringing in their ears to stop and someone on the other end to pick up the phone.

The Tiger Calling Club, part of the Office of Annual Giving and Membership, employs about 70 students a semester. It’s technically a job, raising between $500,000 and $600,000 a year from alumni for campus programs and scholarships, but it’s hard to see that at first glance. The students chat amiably with one another while their headsets ring: Will you be at the going-away party for the seniors? How is German class coming?

“We have a ‘no such thing as a stranger’ mentality,” says Saskia Robertson, a senior Spanish and international studies major from St. Peters, Mo., on a cold December evening in 2013, 11 days before she graduates with her bachelor’s degree. That’s partly because so many of the students were friends with one or more of the callers before joining the crew. Word-of-mouth from current workers keeps the jobs filled when vacancies occur.

Tonight, Robertson sits next to Justin McMahon, a junior in English and communication. In almost two years at the office, Robertson has raised nearly $75,000. McMahon, who started five months ago, is a rising star, already raising more than $15,000 — and two job offers. “Oh, yeah,” he says. “I’ve gotten offered a couple positions just from the way I talk on the phone.”

The interpersonal skills students develop translate well to the workplace, says Beverly Smith, supervisor of the club. “I’m still in touch with a lot of [former students], and right down the line, every one of them have said, ‘Beverly, you don’t understand how much that [experience] helped me deal with people in my job.’ ”

Mizzou alumni are just a cool group of people to chat with, Robertson says, recounting conversations with an alumnus who invented a piece of technology that made GPS possible and another who worked with the U.S. military on the first missiles that could reach space. “A lot of alumni just really like to talk to current students,” she says.

Robertson teases McMahon after one call, congratulating him for not saying “fantastic” during his goodbye. “I’m trying to get away from that,” he says.

“I can’t even imitate it,” she says. “It’s so happy and bubbly.”

But then it’s several more minutes of empty ringing or people who answer but don’t have time to talk.

The students are nearing the end of a three-month campaign for the Chancellor’s Fund for Excellence — a versatile fund that can be put toward areas of greatest need and opportunity, including student scholarships and programs, technology upgrades, and faculty hires. In the first days of the campaign, an evening shift would pull in $5,000. The previous night, the callers only got about $1,000. Tonight is looking similarly quiet.

But then McMahon gets a bite. His voice bumps up an octave as he talks to a middle-aged woman from the Kansas City area. “My name is Justin McMahon, and I’m calling from the University of Missouri,” he explains. “Did I catch you at a good time?”

“Um, yeah,” she says.

“Fan-tas-tic!”