By Andy Smith
It’s a good bet that few people have ever used the words “boot camp” and “soft skills” in the same sentence. But unlike a military version, the Real Estate Boot Camp at Penn State Smeal is designed to lift participants up rather than break them down.
“Preparing students to enter the real estate field involves much more than classroom and textbook learning,” says Brent Ambrose, the Jason and Julie Borrelli Faculty Chair in Real Estate and director of Smeal’s Institute for Real Estate Studies. “You also need to be up to date with what’s happening in the field and you need to possess the confidence and personal skills to ensure your success.”
Launched in 2015, the Real Estate Boot Camp was born out of a conversation Ambrose had with Peter Cocoziello, a 1973 Penn State Smeal graduate who is founder, president, and CEO of Advance Realty in New Jersey. Cocoziello is also co-founder of Smeal’s Real Estate Advisory Board and a member of the Board of Visitors.
“Peter and I discussed the need for students to have exposure to different career paths in real estate as well as the skills necessary to be successful in the industry,” Ambrose says. “We created the boot camp to provide those opportunities.”
The Real Estate Boot Camp was designed as an extracurricular collection of experiences rather than an intensive “camp” with a set time period. Various activities are held throughout the fall and spring semesters, including on-campus lectures by visiting professionals, trips to visit job sites, and networking with developers and others in the field. Also included are activities meant to improve students’ softer skills, such as mock interviews and resume development.
The program was originally open to all Smeal real estate majors but has since expanded to include non-majors and even non-Smeal students from other Penn State colleges and campuses. It had a modest beginning — only about 10 students applied. Today, the number of participants has swelled to nearly 250.
“Penn State has all the disciplines to succeed in real estate, from finance and marketing to planning and engineering,” Cocoziello says. “But sometimes the students need help with the softer side of things — public speaking, interview skills, understanding body language, networking.”
“You can be a brilliant student, but you’re not going anywhere if you don’t have self-confidence or you can’t express yourself,” he continues. “I’ve had Smeal interns who have gone through Boot Camp and I’ve seen the difference. They’re much more confident, they know the questions to ask, and they present well. I think the program has been a huge success.”
One of the most popular and valuable Boot Camp offerings is a week-long ARGUS training course. ARGUS is the leading analytic tool in the real estate industry. Being ARGUS certified is a huge differentiator for students who are seeking internships and jobs.
“We pay for the ARGUS instructor, and at the end of the course, the students can take the certification exam,” Ambrose says. “The students pay for the exam, but we refund the cost if they pass.”
Another “carrot” to entice students to join the Boot Camp: all-expense-paid trips to cities like New York and Philadelphia to visit job sites and meet Penn State alumni who are working in the field. Boot Camp students are also included in the “resume book,” a collection of prescreened students given to companies seeking interns or new employees.
The Boot Camp wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Institute for Real Estate Studies’ board members, particularly Carl Berquist, a 1974 Penn State Smeal graduate who made a sizable donation to launch the program six years ago.
“I’m a firm believer that part of a student’s education should be what they experience, not just what they get in the classroom…that makes for a true well-rounded education,” says Berquist, the retired executive vice president and chief financial officer for Marriott International.
“The Real Estate Boot Camp provides students with the opportunity to get a taste for what the real estate industry is all about,” he continues. “Students hear about this program and think to themselves, ‘How can I not participate in this?’ And they don’t have to pay extra for it either. I graduated in 1974 and I would have loved to have had this experience back then.”
Berquist likes to joke that he did the easy part: “I gave money.” He and others credit Institute staff and faculty members like Lisa Ford, Brent Ambrose and Mallory Meehan for building the program into the powerhouse it is today.
“Boot Camp is about giving students opportunities,” Berquist says simply. “Smeal has a team that goes above and beyond to help these students in ways they won’t even realize until they look back years from now and say, ‘Wow, what an opportunity that was.’”
Boot Camp Success Stories
“My father has been in the construction industry for over 40 years with our own business, so I spent my summers working on construction sites, shovel in hand, no special treatment,” Caruso says with a laugh. “But I loved working on the job sites, which led to my interest in real estate development.”
Matthew Caruso got an early taste of real estate, starting from the ground floor up.
A real estate major at Penn State Smeal, Caruso says it was a “no-brainer” to sign up for the Real Estate Boot Camp when it launched during his sophomore year.
“Ninety percent of life is about just showing up and participating, and that’s what the Boot Camp was all about,” he says. “Getting insight from real estate professionals who came to campus, taking trips to New York to visit job sites and meet developers, getting ARGUS certified, being included in the resume portfolio… those were great things to talk about during interviews for internships and jobs.”
Caruso graduated in 2018 and today works as an analyst at Tishman Speyer in New York City. It’s a job that has him working in real estate investment, development, and asset management.
“I’m in the Big Apple — exactly where I wanted to be, doing exactly what I wanted to do,” he says.
Kristen Crossman loved to sell when she was a kid, whether it was magazine subscriptions in middle school or making a pitch to her parents for a camera phone. She was also fascinated by real estate and enjoyed math. All these interests aligned at Penn State Smeal, where she majored in risk management with a concentration in real estate and graduated in 2015.
“At Smeal, I got involved in anything extracurricular that involved real estate,” she says. “I was very goal oriented, and Boot Camp gave me opportunities to learn but also experiences that would help me get the best job after graduation.”
Today, Crossman works in New York City as a retail broker, representing landlords on leasing their retail assets and helping retailers facilitate their store expansion strategies. She says her experiences at Smeal set her up for success.
“The face-to-face connections I made, the alumni network, the events and seminars — all of it helped me home in on what I wanted to do,” she says. “I tell everyone that it’s hard to leave Penn State without a job.”
Alycia Fournier jokes that she was a junior Joanna Gaines as a kid, a reference to the co-host of HGTV’s popular show Fixer Upper.
“My dad is a carpenter and we’ve been flipping houses together since I was young,” Fournier says. “I was always interested in the numbers side of things, but I wasn’t exposed to that growing up. Instead, I was grouting, painting and putting in cabinets.”
A Risk Management major at Penn State Smeal, Fournier joined the Real Estate Boot Camp and discovered a whole new world.
“Boot Camp opened my eyes to the financial side of real estate,” she says.
“I’ve had the chance to interact and network with professionals in the field. It’s also gotten me involved in case competitions, which solidified that I’m in the right field.”
This summer, Fournier will intern at Redstone Investments in Tampa. She says that her boot camp experiences made great talking points in the interview.
“When I told them all the things I’ve done, they were very impressed,” she says. “The professors and Real Estate Institute board members have been so involved in helping Boot Camp students, referring them to companies for internships and jobs, giving us as many opportunities as possible. They do everything they can to help us succeed.”
Adam Raggi started as an accounting major at Penn State, but the pull of real estate was too strong.
“My dad owns a real estate investment firm, and I already owned a house and rented it out by the time I was 18,” he says. “Today I own six properties containing 18 rental units.”
Smeal’s Real Estate Boot Camp was a natural fit for Raggi. Through the program, he got involved in case competitions, was trained in ARGUS, attended lectures, and took a trip to Philadelphia where he interacted with professionals in the field.
“I’m a social person, but having the confidence to talk to these high-level professionals was hard,” he says. “Boot Camp events built up my confidence and made me feel like I could achieve what these professionals had.”
Raggi graduated in May 2021 and now works for his father’s company. Plans call for him to take it over when his father retires.
“I had no idea what I was getting into when I signed up for Boot Camp, but it ended up opening so many doors for me,” he says. “It gave me the chance to take what I was learning in class and see it in real life.”