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Student internships are a key component to future employment

By MARLON W. MORGAN

Students everywhere always have been taught the importance of maintaining good grades. But when it comes to landing a job, lofty grade-point averages aren’t near the top of the list of things employers are seeking.

According to a survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012, the No. 1 thing employers look for when hiring recent college graduates is internships, followed closely by employment during college.

“For any student that I see, I’ll highly recommend they do an internship if they haven’t already just because it is such an important thing,” said Dean Paulk ’05, internship coordinator in Western Carolina University’s Center for Career and Professional Development. “It’s one of the best and easiest ways to get that experience employers are looking for.”

Internships are a way for students to gain valuable work experience while still in school, which often times can’t be simulated in the classroom. Learning in a work environment also can help students confirm their career goals, Paulk said.

“Internships are great for resumes,” he said. “It shows employers that the students have done hands-on work and not just entry-level work. It gives them that extra kind of edge, or leg up, on students who don’t have internships. And it does show employers that they do have the skills, that they’ve actually been on the job, especially if it is one of those larger name companies, or a well-known company.”

While students across the WCU campus participated in numerous internships this summer, several of them did so at some prestigious locations. Laney Browder, Alma Plaza-Rodgriguez, Anna Oates ’16, Jessica Flowers ’16, William Pfeiffer, Sara Clark ’16 and Adrianna Warner were among those who significantly bolstered their resumes with impressive internships over the summer.

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Rising senior Alma Plaza-Rodriguez conducts research into Lou Gehrig’s disease at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

Browder, a rising senior from Wilkesboro, was one of 16 students from the U.S. selected by the American Chemical Society to participate in its International Research Experiences for Students program. Browder, a chemistry major who is also going for a minor in biology, spent her summer doing research at the National University of Singapore.

In addition to the countless hours she spends in the laboratory at WCU, Browder also is a member of the Catamounts’ cross country and track and field teams. “She’s one of the best students in our program, especially with her doing cross country and track and field,” said Channa De Silva, WCU assistant professor in the department of chemistry and physics. “With that and doing chemistry and research on top of classes, that’s a really big deal. I consider her like a role model for other students because I don’t know how she does that with practices and everything.”

Paulk agreed that Browder’s accomplishments represents an impressive feat, one that future employers will also notice on her resume.

“It’s definitely something that she can put on her resume and on her cover letter as being able to multi-task, to handle various responsibilities in different areas,” Paulk said.

Browder participated in nanoparticle research and will present her work this fall at the ACS National Meeting and Exposition in Philadelphia. In addition to being exposed to a new culture, Browder was excited about the opportunity to work on research she is passionate about. “I hope to learn more about inorganic chemistry through this internship, too. This will hopefully prepare me for graduate school,” she said before leaving for Singapore.

Interning at one of the top chemistry schools in the world will be beneficial to WCU, too, De Silva said.  “That experience will help us here at Western Carolina improve our research because she’s going to bring back some of those research skills,” he said. “We have certain instrumentation and techniques that we use here, but that university is so high-end. They may have more cutting-edge instrumentation and scientific techniques so she will be exposed to some of those as part of her training. That’s important to her future.”

In the summer of 2015, Browder participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates program sponsored by the National Science Foundations at the University of Tennessee, and presented her research at the ACS regional meeting last November, as well as the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in April.

Oates, from Wilson, spent the summer with the Library of Congress Junior Fellows Summer Intern Program, where she worked in the Library Services Music Division. Oates, who majored in English with a concentration in literature, applied for the position out of the blue.

“I wasn’t expecting anything from it, so being considered was just an honor, and when I actually got the position, I didn’t know what to do. I emailed all of my professors who had helped me with the process. They were less surprised than I was,” she said.

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Anna Oates ’16 recalls her internship at the Library of Congress.

Oates worked with her project mentor to perform a collections assessment of, create an inventory for, and create a curated list of priorities for digitization and access for the moving image assets received in the ongoing acquisitions from the American Ballet Theatre. She also assisted in transferring audio-visual materials to the Packard Campus, and co-authored a document for the division on the priorities and workflows for handling audio-visual materials within dance acquisitions, and for forecasting uses of the materials for scholarly, teaching and public programming access.

Working with the American Ballet Theatre was icing on the cake for Oates. “That’s really, really awesome for me because I’ve been involved in theater most of my life,” Oates said. “I was a dance minor.”

Plaza-Rodriguez also was involved in an internship with personal appeal. She spent 10 weeks conducting research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, after being selected as a recipient of the 2016 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program Award.

The goal of the Exceptional Research Opportunities Program is to ensure that a diverse and highly trained workforce is ready to take on leadership roles in science. Following completion of the summer study programs, HHMI will continue working with the recipients to encourage them to pursue careers in science.

The rising senior, who is originally from Puerto Rico but now resides in Bunnlevel, is majoring in chemistry with a concentration in biomedical science and technology.

Plaza-Rodriguez came to WCU as a political science major, but quickly discovered a passion for science, especially chemistry. “I started developing a strong interest in relation to diseases particularly,” she said.

She believes that stemmed from her teenage years when she helped care for her grandfather, who developed ALS. While at St. Jude’s, Plaza-Rodriguez worked with Dr. J. Paul Taylor, who specializes in cell and molecular biology. In addition to lab work, she attended two meetings at HHMI headquarters in Chevy Chase, Maryland, to present her research in a poster session. Because she plans to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry, Plaza-Rodriguez is eligible to receive continued support from HHMI during her doctoral training through the Gilliam Fellows program.

Flowers, a spring graduate from Wadesboro with a degree in biology; Clark, from Marion who also graduated in the spring as a dual major in biology and Spanish; Pfeiffer, a senior from Raleigh majoring in emergency medical care; and Warner, a rising senior from Brevard majoring in special studies with a neuroscience pre-professional concentration, all participated in eight-week internships with the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville.

The internships, which were from March through April, provided them with an opportunity to gain firsthand experience and working knowledge in health careers. MAHEC is a Western North Carolina family care provider and, as part of the University of North Carolina system trains physicians and health professionals with a goal toward increasing health care availability throughout WNC.

“These internships are quite competitive and, in addition to getting a high level of exposure to medicine, pharmacy and dentistry, they also as a group have a high percent chance of getting into medical, pharmacy or dental school as a result of their experience here,” said Dr. Jeffery E. Heck, MAHEC president and CEO.

It also gives the students an opportunity to give back to their surrounding communities, said Theresa Cruz Paul, director of the WCU Center for Career and Professional Development. “Students are able to work with professionals in their field in the local community,” Cruz Paul said. “Western Carolina University’s relationship with MAHEC provides a straightforward path for students who want to enter these fields as a profession.”

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Sara Clark ’16 (left) and senior William Pfeiffer are two of four WCU students participating in internships with the Mountain Area Health Education Center in Asheville, giving them firsthand experience and working knowledge in health careers.

Personal experiences are what helped the four students decide on health career professions and seeking an internship. Pfeiffer believes a pivotal moment for him was early in an emergency medical training basic class and the real-life experiences that come with such training.

“It may sound cliche, but at that moment during my first morning in the back of an ambulance holding a patient’s hand and talking to her about her family, I knew exactly where I belonged,” Pfeiffer said. “I learned that I am at my best when I can be helping others, whether by listening to them and being supportive or just lending a helping hand.”

Not only are internships like these valuable to the participating students, but provide employers with exposure to the talent pool being provided at WCU. “Those organizations can see the kind of quality students that we have,” Paulk said. “If the students are doing a good job, they’ll use us again. And they’ll come to us looking for students.

“It also shows that Western is prioritizing experiential learning, which is getting bigger and bigger. As the students go out and have these experiences at these important and influential places, it just helps us to build those connections and show these places that Western does put out good quality, high-caliber students,” he said.