Photo caption: While interning for Sherwin-Williams in Shakopee, Minnesota, senior Beck Ruzicka was able to earn degree credits applying his chemistry knowledge and his communication skills in a highly rewarding work experience.
The best of both worlds in a chemistry degree for business
Landing a great internship always is a big deal for students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire — for many it becomes the most significant step in the path to their first career job.
For senior Beck Ruzicka of Prior Lake, Minnesota, last summer’s internship also became an important step for the department of chemistry and biochemistry.
Ruzicka, who will graduate in December, became the first chemistry-business major to complete an internship. Additionally, Ruzicka was among the first four students in the department to earn degree-plan credit for an internship.
Giving credit where credit is due
Internships always have been a cornerstone among high-impact practices at UW-Eau Claire — crucial experiential learning that integrates classroom knowledge and theory with practical applications in a professional setting.
Dr. Deidra Gerlach, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry, explains why faculty pushed for and succeeded in getting course offering CHEM 490, "Chemical Internship" added to the fall 2021 course catalog for the first time.
“There have been many informal internships offered through our department, but it’s important to give chemistry and biochemistry students course credit for the very robust industry experiences they are having,” Gerlach says.
“From industry logistics to R&D or quality control laboratory work — all of these opportunities play perfectly into the skill sets we are trying to teach in our programs, so why not give credit along with the resume boost that internships provide?”
Ruzicka had already lined up an internship with Sherwin-Williams in Shakopee, Minnesota, back in January 2021, and appealed to have this opportunity approved under the new internship course. Department internship credit has now been awarded to four chemistry students including Ruzicka: one chemistry-business major; one biochemistry/molecular biology major; one general comprehensive chemistry major; and one chemistry minor.
According to department chair Dr. James Phillips, the move to credited internships was a natural next step in the department’s efforts to best prepare students for employment.
“This formalized internship program extends our long-standing tradition of research and experiential learning out into the private sector and into the community,” Phillips says. “The opportunity for students to hone their skills in an actual workplace setting while earning degree credit is one more option that will help our graduates stand out as desirable candidates upon graduation.”
A degree that wears many hats
When he started school his first year, Ruzicka was a business major with no declared emphasis, but discovered a love and aptitude for chemistry.
“I changed my major to chemistry, but after a few weeks I knew I still had a lot of interest in business,” he says. “That was when my advisor told me about the chemistry with a business emphasis major — it was the right combination for me.”
Ruzicka is a self-declared “people person,” who finds the business interaction side of this field to be fulfilling, while certain elements of the chemistry involved will satisfy his enjoyment of working with materials in a lab, seeing the reactions and figuring out why things react the way they do.
“Laboratory work can be pretty solitary, so the idea of that being the majority of a career would be hard for me,” he says. “This plan gives me a balance in my interests, my skills and my personality.”
The summer internship title was “management and sales” so Ruzicka spent much of his time in the front side of the store, interacting with customers and contractors, and shadowing managers through ordering, shipping and scheduling duties. There also were chances to apply his chemistry knowledge in product testing at production facilities.
All Sherwin-Williams interns throughout the Twin Cities took part in a team project competition over the course of the summer. The inner “people person” Ruzicka describes turned out to be the perfect match for his team’s project which was tasked with resolving barriers to multicultural recruitment at Sherwin-Williams stores.
“Our research showed that over 50% of painters in the U.S. are Hispanic, and 40% of those are non-English speakers, yet Sherwin-Williams had little to no Spanish language signage or labeling in their area stores,” he says. “Our team won the competition for the Midwest region, with a project aimed at making the in-store experience better for folks who are not fluent in English.”
What Ruzicka says were some of the most valuable lessons from his internship, along with the actual on-the-job skills and insights, were the big picture views he gained of the job lanes open to him as a chemistry-business graduate.
“My eyes have been opened to just how many options I have,” he says. “Now that I’m in the job hunt, I can search under chemistry, as well as marketing or sales positions, and each of those can fall under pretty much any broad industry.”
With a general hope to stay in Minnesota or the Midwest, Ruzicka is taking the application process one step at a time, confident that his sound basis in chemistry knowledge and understanding of business will bring him to an industry job that is a great fit.