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From left, Cisco Systems Information Technology Analyst Annie Cheung, works at Cisco Systems, Inc., in San Jose on Wednesday, October 3, 2012. (LiPo Ching/Staff)

If Annie Cheung's parents are looking for someone to blame for derailing her from medical school, they might point a finger or two at Cisco (CSCO).

During much of her time at Santa Clara University the biology major barely gave the Silicon Valley networking giant a thought. At least until she heard about a fellowship program that Cisco was launching. The idea was to get college students who weren't interested in information technology careers or Cisco to at least take a look.

Eventually, she was hooked.

And OK, it all came out pretty good for Cheung. In return for a $1,500 scholarship, she took some programming courses and a database class. She met Cisco bigwigs, toured the corporate campus, and learned the inner-workings of one of the valley's premier companies. And when she graduated in the spring, she landed a job at Cisco as an IT analyst working with the team that builds applications for the company's technical support operation.

"Coming into the IT world has given me a completely different perspective on things," says Cheung, 22 of San Francisco. "Now I've been looking at things such as electronic health records, data mining patient records for improved care."

Her horizons are broadened, which is the idea behind the Cisco Fellowships, a program the company is expanding to five more campuses this year. It's one strategy by one company in what has become an all-out war in Silicon Valley: the fight to attract top tech talent.

Andy Tsay, a business professor at SCU who worked with a former student to develop the pilot fellowship program that Cheung participated in, says the current crop of college students presents a special challenge to companies that are looking to stock their cubicles with recent graduates.

"They are behaving significantly differently in the interviewing process," Tsay says. "They are looking for something more meaningful." The millennials, Tsay says, want to know more about how they fit into a given company; what their role will be; where the organization is headed.

And beyond that, there is the challenge of what you might think of as yet another Facebook effect -- or the Facebook, Google (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) effect. Students who grew up living on Google and Facebook and plugged into all manner of Apple's sleek products know exactly where they'd like to apply their tech skills. When it comes to big companies in the hiring market, the three Silicon Valley darlings suck the oxygen out of the room.

"I know there is a huge buzz around, 'I want to work at Google because of the perks; I want to work at Apple because they make great stuff; I want to work at Facebook, because I'm on there 24/7,'" says Patrick Pham, an SCU junior and Cisco fellow. But they are not the only game in the valley and they are not necessarily the best fit for everyone.

"When I talked to Cisco, they told me exactly what they do. They're in the business of running the Internet," says Pham, a 20-year-old studying operations and management information systems. "So, when you think about it, their technology is what allows the other companies to function."

It was a revelation to Pham, who initially had little interest in a company that dealt primarily with other businesses. But after a summer internship, he found that he was not only interested in what Cisco does, but in the way his job there allowed him to work closely with both business and technical teams.

"I really enjoyed being the facilitator of that discussion between the two teams," he says.

It's students like Pham that Camille Gatenby, Tsay's former student and now a Cisco human resources manager, had in mind when she came up with the idea of Cisco fellowships.

"I remember being an undergrad and it's that you don't know what you don't know," she says.

And so Gatenby has made it her business to ensure that one thing that the current crop of college kids does know is that Cisco might be a place that can fulfill their aspirations. And if that realization lands the company a few talented employees who might otherwise have headed to med school? All the better.

Contact Mike Cassidy at mcassidy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.