DECATUR - Speaking with the self-assured charisma of a seasoned salesman, Dave Perrino elicited giggles and applause from his audience.

Perrino, a senior at Millikin University, was participating in a sales-pitch competition at a recent meeting of Collegiate DECA, the university's business professional organization for students. He spoke with such flair during his pitch for the imaginary Hammock Shelf ("a shelf to hang where no shelf has hung before") that more than 20 fellow students could not contain their laughter.

It is something, Perrino said, he could never have done without the organization.

"I am completely different today as I was when I came into this school a year ago," said Perrino, a Naperville native studying management. "I wouldn't be able to stand up in front of a group like this and give that presentation without the year that I've had with DECA."

This is Collegiate DECA's second year on the campus. The organization is designed to endow its members - the Millikin chapter has about 35 - with skills including confidence, leadership, communication, entrepreneurship and management, said faculty adviser Susan Kruml, associate professor of management.

Kruml spearheaded the quest in spring 2009 to find a new business organization for the campus, but it was students who ultimately chose Collegiate DECA from several potential groups.

One of the organization's strong points, its members say, is that it is run just like a business. Students manage all aspects of the university's concession stand at football games. This year, they began a tailgating fundraiser on Fridays and plan to produce a cookbook for sale by Mother's Day.

With the money they raise, the students attend conferences several times a year. There, they can network and engage in competitions to test various business-related skills.

"Our goal is to make money and balance the books. It gives everybody involved a chance to see how business runs - kind of on a small scale, but it does a pretty good job," said Evan File, a senior from White Heath studying management.

As vice president of entrepreneurship, File is one of the organization's executive board members. Those students apply and interview for their positions, just as they would for a job, and spend five to 10 hours a week on work related to the organization.

Most of the group's members, about 70 percent, are focused in business-related areas of study. But the organization also includes those studying fields such as biology or chemistry, and its student leaders say they hope to recruit from across the campus as Collegiate DECA grows larger.

President Kayla Vogel is a case in point. Vogel, a senior from Sussex, Wis., studies communication and Spanish.

"The skills you can learn and practice in DECA are valuable in anything you're going to do," Vogel said. "No matter what, you're going to be working in a business or for a business."

Another big advantage for the students, Kruml said, is networking. By inviting speakers to their weekly meetings and circulating among business professionals at conferences, the students have an opportunity to make connections they wouldn't otherwise.

For instance, there's Perrino, who also serves as the group's vice president of development. He hopes the contacts he's made through Collegiate DECA could help him in the job search he'll begin after graduating in December. Some of the speakers at Collegiate DECA meetings have taken copies of Perrino's resume and promised to keep him in mind.

As Kruml put it, "We say from Day 1 when our students walk into Millikin, 'You have to network, network, network. It's all about building relationships.' These students actually do it."

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