Real World Experience: Test Driving a Career

Brianne Conrad ’15 and Rob Campbell ’13 look for signs of cattle accessing the James River.

Brianne Conrad ’15 and Rob Campbell ’13 look for signs of cattle accessing the James River.

This spring, Brianne Conrad ’15 discovered that for her, the ideal office setting might look a lot like the James River.
Conrad spent her final semester of college in an internship with the James River Foundation. Her job? Ride a boat up and down the river and look for signs of cattle being able to get in the water. Her mission? Make the river cleaner by helping notify farmers about grant funding that would pay for a fence between pastures and the water.

“It’s a lot of fun to be on the river because I can see directly what I’m trying to help improve,” she said. “It’s nice to actually be out in the field doing something.”

The work also allowed her to put what she’s learned about environmental issues into action. “I thought it was a good way to make a difference with something I have a passion for,” she said.

She also saw evidence of how an internship and other hands- on practical experience can lead to a career. Conrad’s internship supervisor, Rob Campbell ’13, credits his senior-year internship with the Robert E. Lee Soil and Water Conservation District for helping him land his current position with the James River Foundation.

“An internship leads you into the real setting of a workplace,” Campbell said. “That’s the benefit of an internship— taking the knowledge that we’ve gained in our years of school and putting it to daily use. An internship brings home everything that you’ve learned and translates perfectly into your professional career.”

Most likely, Conrad’s first job out of college will have nothing to do with traversing a river and looking for cattle, but her experiences will still benefit her, Campbell said. “Some of this knowledge will carry on to other jobs, but she has seen how to take the knowledge that she’s gained in the academic world and use it in another situation.”

Internships work along with the Randolph curriculum to create a powerful combination of knowledge, skills, and experience. They are an integral part of the Randolph Plan, and academic advisors, other professors, and staff members start conversations early with students about when and where they want to do internships. Once an internship is completed, the student then uses the lessons learned during the experience to make decisions about future coursework or even career plans.

Jeff Heinfeldt, a Randolph business professor, said work experience helps students value what they are learning in the classroom. “It lets the students see that the things we talk about in the classroom are out there in the real world,” he said. “It helps reinforce the material. Since you don’t know where your path in life will take you, you have those broad experiences to draw upon.”

Randolph classes allow students to build a foundation of liberal arts with a solid grasp on the history and theory of their discipline—as well as a broad spectrum of other topics, said Jennifer Gauthier, a Randolph communication studies professor.
The value of that foundation is evident when students go out into internships and careers, she added, recalling a student who worked at an advertising agency where most other interns were from large universities, rather than small, liberal arts colleges. “Her supervisor said she was the best prepared,” Gauthier said. “She could write well, she could research, and she could problem solve.”

Internships also build on the liberal arts foundation by adding practical experience that is difficult to provide in the classroom. For example, the communication studies department offers how-to classes in filmmaking, photography, and journalism, but new jobs are being invented in those fields—and existing jobs are evolving quickly because of innovative technology.

“Because the field is so broad, we can’t offer classes on everything there is to do,” Gauthier said. “By doing an internship, students can get some more hands-on career work in the industry. They can apply what they have learned in the classroom and put practical experience into the equation.

“Internships also help students try out different industries,” Gauthier added. “They can see what’s out there and what suits their skills and their interests.”

Before Conrad worked on the James River project, she completed several internships in offices. The change of scenery helped her understand her career interests more. “I definitely realized that I want a job where I can spend close to equal time inside and outside, if not more outside,” she said.

Multiple internships also helped Seisha Scott ’16 refine her career goals. After working at the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum, the local United Way chapter, and the College, she learned that she was not passionate about fundraising, but she lived and breathed nonprofit events management. “My internships helped me narrow down what I want to do,” she said.

Her excellent performance in prior internships was one thing that led to Scott’s selection for Randolph’s new internship program with the National Gallery in London. The program was formed as part of the College’s academic partnership with the Gallery. “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life,” Scott said. “It involves everything that I ever wanted to do. It fulfills my personal goals, my career goals, and my educational goals.”

Her internship will focus on event planning, while Elisabeth Price ’16, the other student selected for a National Gallery internship this summer, is working in the dossiers and registration office. Price said her multiple internship experiences have built her résumé and given her valuable perspectives that she applies when she decides which courses to take, participates in class discussions, or works on assignments.

Internships also allow students to demonstrate their ability to grapple with actual business problems. During his last semester, math major Tu Nguyen ’15 put his analytical skills and business acumen to use for the Mid-State Group, a company that specializes in insurance and business consulting services. Nguyen, who hopes to become an actuary, analyzed clients’ health insurance claims from prior years, using the data to deduce how much they could expect to pay over the next five years with a new insurance policy.

Tu Nguyen ’15 works with Leon Hill, director of process Insurance excellence at the Mid-State Group.

Tu Nguyen ’15 works with Leon Hill, director of process excellence at the Mid-State Group.

He also analyzed past claims to identify what conditions cost the clients the most money, allowing other Mid-State consultants to provide guidance that would bring costs down.

Advisors play a key role in helping students gain the most from their internship experiences. For instance, Scott had planned to study abroad in Spain this summer. Heinfeldt, her advisor, helped her brainstorm ways that she could explore her career interests on that trip. But when she decided to pursue the National Gallery internship, he supported the change in plans and gave her useful advice.

“I think it’s important to have a good relationship with my advisor because he knows everything about my college experience,” Scott said. “He has been able to guide me in the right direction.”

Faculty members say Randolph’s personalized advising system and low student-faculty ratio allow beneficial relationships to flourish. “Since I get to know my students really well, I know their strengths and their interests and their future goals,” Gauthier said. “That personal relationship helps me work with them to find internships that are a perfect fit.”