Columbia Students Named Finalists in NRF Foundation’s Student Challenge

PhotoTeam Boise: Left to right (top row) - Ivonne Malagon, Juan Osorio, and Alexis Norris; bottom row - Aleesa Wright.
Columbia students will earn scholarships and again head to New York City to meet with retail industry leaders and attend the NRF Foundation Honors event.

Once again, Columbia College Chicago students have been named finalists in the NRF Foundation’s Student Challenge, an annual team business competition designed to give undergraduates real-world experiences and earn scholarships. The Columbia team is among three teams from a national competition that will go to New York City in January to present their pitches to leaders from retail’s biggest companies.

The team will also attend the NRF Foundation Honors event, where the top team will be announced, earning each team member a $7,000 tuition scholarship. The second-place team will receive $5,000 per student and the third-place team will receive $2,500 per student. In addition, each student receives a $1,000 travel stipend to attend the NRF Foundation Student Program and the NRF Foundation Honors event. For Columbia, this means that the Student Challenge would bring the team anywhere from $10,000 to $28,000 in scholarships, plus a trip to New York where they would be celebrated as winners at the high-profile NRF Foundation gala.

This year’s finalist team from Columbia — Team Boise — includes Ivonne Malagon (Marketing), Alexis Norris (Fashion Studies Merchandising), Juan Osorio (Advertising), and Aleesa Wright (Advertising).

When the students heard the news, they were elated. “It was one of the nicest experiences, having your phone blowing up,” Osorio says. “It was like, ‘Wow, we made it finally after all this work.’”

For the challenge, teams were asked to research markets for a new concept store from Dick’s Sporting Goods called Public Lands. Each team identified and researched three locations and then landed on one for their new store concept. “It was fun to be able to get out there and conduct our own research,” Norris says.

The creative collaboration surrounding planning a grand opening proved especially rewarding for Wright. “When we were throwing out ideas,” she says, “it just felt like really a comfortable space for me because it was an open area for creativity.”

While not going to New York, another Columbia team — Team Knoxville — had advanced to the semi-final stage of the challenge. Those team members include Haven Hathaway (Fashion Studies Merchandising), Jillian Schendel (Fashion Studies Merchandising), Julia Krasovic (Advertising), and Marrisa Traver (Film and Television).

Columbia students participating in the NRF Foundation Student Challenge come together from different departments at Columbia to compete, with this year’s finalists representing both the Communication and Fashion Studies departments. They are led by Dana Connell, director of scholarship initiatives and associate professor in Fashion Studies, and Peg Murphy, associate chair and associate professor in Communication.

Throughout the experience, Connell and Murphy saw their students develop important skills.“Teamwork is number one—being able to bring students together who are from different disciplines and yet really appreciate each other's knowledge and perspective and be able to still work together,” Connell says.

Students also learn about careers in the retail industry, Murphy says. “It's an opportunity to learn there's all kinds of things that go into it and (retail) needs really so many different kinds of talents, whether it's analytics or it's creative content creation or it's merchandising or it's thinking about what we're going to do in the metaverse next week,” she says. “(Retail is) just such a great field for so many people.”

With Fall classes over and students beginning to enjoy their winter breaks, the team looks forward to their January trip to New York City.

“I'm ready to shop, eat, meet new people, and then maybe see a New York rat,” Malagon jokes. “So, I'm excited.”