Alex Byrum. Image was taken prior to Business Horizons Career Fair, Feb. 2020.
Alex Byrum. Image was taken prior to Business Horizons Career Fair, Feb. 2020.

Like many 18-year-olds, Tidewater area-native Alex Byrum had no idea what he wanted to do with his life when he graduated from high school. The youngest of three brothers – both of whom were Hokies – Byrum only knew that he wanted to assert his independence in some form or fashion.

His quest for independence led Byrum to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, then back home to Virginia’s Tidewater region, and, ultimately, to Blacksburg. In January 2021, it will lead him home once again, this time to Smithfield Foods in Norfolk, where he will begin work in Smithfield’s Career Foundation Program.

As the Chinese proverb states, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Byrum took the first step on his journey when he enlisted in the Army in February 2010.

“When I enlisted, I knew what I was in for,” he said. “Our country was fighting in two different wars, so I knew I was going to end up deploying.” This is exactly what Byrum did, serving as an infantryman in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

Byrum credits his time in the military with providing him the tools needed to be successful as a student, particularly a student during a pandemic.

“The military teaches you how to build your own schedule,” he explained. “That’s one of the reasons why online learning wasn’t too hard of an adjustment for me. They also taught me resilience. That’s important because, as an older student, I have certain life complications and responsibilities that other students do not have.”

After he was honorably discharged from the Army in late-2013, Byrum spent some time working as an electrical apprentice before enrolling at Tidewater Community College. After earning an associate degree, Byrum decided to follow in his older brothers’ footsteps and join Hokie Nation.

“When I was younger, I spent some time in Blacksburg with my middle brother,” he explained. “I remember thinking that all of the buildings looked like castles.”

While the campus architecture certainly appealed to Byrum, the primary reason he decided to attend had more to do with a potential postgraduate career.

The job placement programs here are awesome,” he said. “There is so much help offered, even during a pandemic.”

For Byrum, his job placement started in the classroom of Business Information Technology Associate Professor Onur Seref.

“He inspired me to follow the supply chain management path for my education,” Byrum said. “It was just the way that both he and his wife, Michelle Seref, taught. They are somewhat ‘new age,’ in that they treat education as a dynamic entity. They could take difficult information, clean it up, and present it in a different, clear way.”

“Alex was always eager to learn with a clear and conscious effort for shaping his future,” added Onur Seref. “It is very rewarding to see Alex graduate and start his career while inspiring many of his peers, colleagues and professors with his courageous and successful journey, and joining his brothers as a proud Hokie alumnus.”

Earlier this year, Byrum paired the tools he learned in the military with the opportunities provided by the Pamplin College of Business in securing an internship.

“The Business Horizons Career Fair was integral in helping me secure my internship with Smithfield Foods,” he said. “When I saw their booth at the career fair, I initiated the conversation.”

That conversation enabled Byrum to line up an interview, which eventually led to a supply chain internship.

“If you want a position, you need to take initiative,” he explained. “Jobs aren’t going to come to you – you need to go to them.”

As his internship began amid a global pandemic in June 2020, Byrum was not beginning the next step of his “thousand-mile journey” under the most ideal of circumstances. However, it was how Smithfield handled their response to the pandemic that made an impression on Byrum.

“During my internship, I was able to choose whether to work from home or in the office,” he said. “It is a very careful environment; everyone is wearing masks and the company offers free COVID-19 testing.”

Byrum also made an impression, as he was able to turn his internship into a full-time job with Smithfield’s Career Foundation Program. In the two-year program, Byrum will rotate through different departments at Smithfield Foods. He will spend eight months working in demand management, eight months in transportation planning, and 12 months in supply management.

“If I am offered a permanent position with any of the three during my rotation, I am able to exit the program and accept the position,” he explained. “Only a few people are chosen to take part in the rotation program.”

“We have wonderful students in BIT,” said Robin Russell, BIT department head. “It is our honor as a department to prepare them for success both in their careers and as contributing members of society. We are proud of you, Alex.”

Byrum’s journey began over a decade ago, spanned well over a thousand miles, and led him back to where he started from, it was successful.

In January 2021, Byrum will take the first step in his next “journey of a thousand miles.”