A Star Surgeon Reflects on his Rutgers Past
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Written by John Chadwick | SAS Senior Writer
[Pull quote] “At Rutgers, I learned skills I rely on to this day”
Elizabeth “Betsy” Armstrong McNeilly was crushing it in her first year at Rutgers.
Armed with a 4.0 GPA, this hard-working daughter of Irish immigrants was mulling a bold move: transferring to an Ivy League school.
She applied to Cornell University, seeking to follow in the footsteps of two older sisters, and was accepted.
Then she had a realization. Her goal had always been to get to a school where she’d be surrounded by lots of smart, talented, and highly-motivated students.
She realized she was already attending one.
“In my first year at Rutgers, I met all these impressive students who were the valedictorians at their high schools,” says McNeilly RC’85. “It dawned on me that I was already around all these super smart, incredibly hard-working people.
“There was no need to go anywhere else.”
Indeed, the year she graduated, McNeilly (formerly Armstrong) landed nearly 80 job interviews and numerous job offers in the New York area through Rutgers career services.
But the keeper was an invitation by JP Morgan Chase, formerly Chemical Bank, to join its prestigious credit training program—the equivalent of today’s intensely competitive investment bank training programs on Wall Street.
By her late 20s, McNeilly was managing a credit team at Chemical Bank, and by her 30s she was a CFO at a large, privately-held company. She also found time to earn her MBA in finance from New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
Today she’s a Senior Director of Wealth Management at BNY Mellon, one of the nation’s largest wealth management firms.
Looking back on it all, McNeilly credits her family, in which she was the youngest of five children, with shaping her work ethic.
“My mother was the original tiger mom,” she says. “She knew instinctively that education was the basis for better opportunities.”
At Rutgers, McNeilly built on that foundation in two principal ways. As an economics major, she gained broad knowledge of the big picture influences on wealth creation, including government policy, politics, and global finance trends, and how human behavior shapes personal outcomes. She also learned how to think critically and extrapolate that knowledge.
She put those skills to good use. At BNY Mellon, she is a national leader in new business development.
“You have to understand factors influencing the global economy, whether interest rates or market bubbles, to
anticipate business cycle booms and busts,” she said. “My clients appreciate my extensive investment knowledge, but they also appreciate my steadiness and earnest commitment to their financial goals and personal legacy.”
She also said the Rutgers experience encouraged self-reliance and a kind of true grit.
“Here I was at this university with enormous resources,” she says. “But it was up to me to find them and make them work for me. It was very valuable to be your own change agent, to learn how to be resourceful.
“And those are skills I rely on to this day.”
McNeilly is extensively involved in community and civic affairs, including at Rutgers, where she serves on the Rutgers University Foundation Board of Overseers. She is also strong supporter of the Rutgers Future Scholars program.
“Future Scholars is a great program because it brings compassion together with the strong belief that everyone can succeed if they’re given the opportunity, access, and tools,” she says.
Eric LeGrand: “Do it for the patients, not the paychecks”
Seniors in the Department of Kinesiology and Health are headed off in many directions. Some plan to be doctors. Others want to become physical therapists. Many are also aspiring nurses, educators, athletic trainers, research scientists, and sports executives.
But they found a common source of inspiration in Eric LeGrand, the former Rutgers football player who suffered a devastating injury in a 2010 game and has become a widely admired figure for his resilience and faith.
LeGrand delivered a poignant message at the department’s senior celebration last May at the Cook Student Center at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.
“Look at me: I thought I would be in the NFL,” said LeGrand, sitting in his motorized wheelchair facing a room packed with graduates, their families, and faculty and staff. “My life did not go as smoothly as I thought it would, but I am living it to the fullest. I’m not holding back, and neither should you.”
LeGrand suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the neck down. But he refuses to give up the hope that he will walk again. There is cause for optimism: he has regained movement in his shoulders and sensation in his body. Meanwhile, LeGrand earned his degree, works as a sports broadcaster with Rutgers, and serves as a motivational speaker as well as an advocate for the disabled.
His appearance served as a fitting finale for students studying kinesiology and health, who have two undergraduate options, one in sports management, which emphasizes business, and one in applied kinesiology, which addresses the health sciences and the impact of exercise on both body and mind.
“Don’t do the job for the paycheck; do it for the patient,” LeGrand said, offering advice to the students entering the healthcare profession. “Put yourself in their shoes. Accept their walk of life. If you can just be there for them, you will find it so rewarding. You will be like: ‘Wow, I really helped that person out.”’
His words hit home for graduates like Andrea Banu who is planning to attend a physical therapy program at the University of Delaware. “This is such a great message,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s all about the patients and putting their lives first.”
Pablo Ortiz, of North Plainfield, New Jersey, agreed. Ortiz recently took his MCATS and will do a gap year before pursuing his goal of becoming a doctor specializing in sport-related knee and joint injuries. “Seeing Eric LeGrand speak is a gift,” he said. “It puts your whole life into perspective.”
Formerly known as exercise science and sport studies, the Department of Kinesiology and Health has been one of the fastest growing areas in the School of Arts and Sciences.
“When I started nearly 30 years ago, there were 200 majors,” said veteran faculty member Susan Kaplowitz. “Now there are almost 1,200 majors.”
Kaplowitz and department chair Labros Sidossis said the growth parallels the expansion of the healthcare field, including specialties for the elderly and the disabled, as well as the growth of the sports industry.
“There is much greater awareness across society that physical activity promotes health,” Sidossis said. “And as more people understand and value this, the need for our graduates will continue to rise.”
Sarah Chaudhry SAS’17 said she entered Rutgers thinking about going into biological sciences but eventually decided on kinesiology and health. “In this major, everything we learn is connected,” she said. “You take what you learn in biology or in chemistry and you apply it to the body as a complete system.”