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Internships give Blugold real-world experiences far and near

| Judy Berthiaume

When Mattheus de Waard moves to Brownsville in May to begin an internship with a large-scale contracting company it will be the second time the Blugold has put the knowledge and skills he’s gained as an environmental geography major to use in a real-world setting.

In his internship at the Wisconsin-based headquarters of Michels Corp., a company that deals with major infrastructure construction projects, the UW-Eau Claire senior will be part of the company’s growing geographic information systems division.

As an intern, Mattheus will work with various construction divisions to help create unique applications and maps while using state-of-the-art field equipment and techniques, including processing imagery that was captured using unmanned aerial systems.

“What excites me most is that I will get to work with state-of-the-art technology for a well-known and respected company,” Mattheus says. “The professors here have been great to me, but I'm excited to be 'let off the leash,' so to speak, and get after it in a professional environment.”

Mattheus’ upcoming internship in southern Wisconsin will provide him with a very different kind of experience than the Madison native’s first internship, which took him to West Africa for a month.

He interned with a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit called ACDI/VOCA, which works to develop strategies that equip and empower people and communities in ways that allow them to successfully engage in local and global markets.

As an intern, Mattheus spent August in Monrovia, Liberia, working as a data processor and cartographer.

“In essence, I helped create a protocol for the organization to collect the locations and attributes of cocoa farms throughout the country,” Mattheus says. “Liberia is a very poor country, and the project scope was to help finance small-scale cocoa farmers to stay afloat as market prices fluctuate. I also made a series of maps for them that could be used in reports to their HQ in Washington, D.C.”

Mattheus’ father has worked in Africa for years so he has many contacts there. When he learned the NGO was looking for a map maker, he shared the information with his son.

“Before I knew it, I was in Monrovia,” Mattheus says. “The highlight was just being in Africa and being a distinct minority. It was great getting the experience of being in a foreign country, in a highly diverse workplace, and feeling accomplished every day by the work I was doing and relationships I was forming.”

Liberia, like many African countries, has many struggles, yet the people are amazingly optimistic, Mattheus says.

“Much of the population is illiterate, and many people I came to find live off of one large rice-based meal a day,” Mattheus says. “But one thing I took from the experience is the profound positivity most Liberians carried themselves with. Just growing up to be my age in that country would mean I’d have been through two civil wars, the Ebola epidemic, and have been exposed to, if not lived through, extreme poverty.

“As an outsider, it’s easy to imagine how horrible it is to live there, but you soon find out that these people are the definition of resilient and are not down in the dumps by any means.“

During his internship, Mattheus worked alongside Liberians who were highly educated professionals.

“They gave me great insight on working in international development,” Mattheus says. “Going forward, I would not rule out returning to do something like this again down the road as a job, but first I’d like to make the most of the more vast resources available here in the USA.”

Mattheus says he feels fortunate to have two such different internships, both of which will let him put his knowledge and skills to use in real-world settings.

“Having this dualistic experience will benefit me because I’ll have had experience in a very diverse and unique work environment as well as in a more traditional one here with Michels Corp.,” Mattheus says. “It will set me apart because I’ll have worked for a company with a high budget and technological capability, as well as one that has very limited resources. In both instances, I’m still expected to produce.”

Proving to himself and others that he can translate what he’s learned as a student into the real world is exciting, says Mattheus, who will graduate in May.

“The internships are opportunities for me to set new goals for myself that are beyond a letter grade,” Mattheus says. “At Michels, I can set my sights on tangible financial and professional aspirations that will be 100 percent performance based.”

Dr. Joseph Hupy, an associate professor of geography whose work is helping UW-Eau Claire gain a reputation as a national leader in unmanned aerial systems and other geospatial technologies, first suggested to Mattheus that the Michels internship would be a good fit for him.

“After the initial referral, it was up to me to reach out and contact the people there and sell myself to them,” Mattheus says. “But in the end, it was the good relationship I have with Dr. Hupy and my other references that solidified me getting the position.”

Thanks to professors who understand the kinds of knowledge and skills graduates will need to succeed in today’s workforce, he and other geography majors are graduating with a set of in-demand technical skills as well as a deep understanding of spatial environmental relationships, Mattheus says.

Building relationships with business and industry in Wisconsin and beyond has been a major focus of the geography department since UW-Eau Claire received a $418,869 grant to support geospatial education.

Among other things, the Geospatial Education Initiative grant dollars have allowed UW-Eau Claire geography faculty to invest more time and resources into developing new internship opportunities for students.

The increased internship opportunities come at the same time the U.S. Department of Labor has listed geospatial technology and its use as one of 14 "high-growth, high-demand and economically vital sectors of the American economy" and estimates its growth rate to be almost 35 percent annually.

Geospatial refers to the technology used in global positioning systems, geographic information systems, computer cartography, remote sensing and field sensors that help in acquiring, storing, processing, analyzing and communicating information connected to a specific location.

During his interview with Michels, Mattheus says he was able to demonstrate how his studies, university projects and the other experiences he’s had as a Blugold will translate into skills that he could immediately put to use at the company, he says.

“Having a comprehensive understanding and technical background is what sets me and other UWEC geography students apart from students at other schools,” Mattheus says. “We’re fortunate to have a group of professors with very diverse backgrounds in geography. They do a great job of integrating their special fields of study with current real-world ideas, knowledge and technology. In other words, what we are learning is always fresh and relevant to today.”

As he looks to the future, Mattheus says his new challenge will be to demonstrate as an intern how valuable he would be to the Michels Corp. as a full-time employee.

“My short-term goal is to turn this internship into a full-time job,” Mattheus says. “Looking ahead, I’m still young, and there is much I still want see and experience. My work with GIS has already taken me to faraway places, and I want to ride that wave as long as possible. If I can make a career out of that and be happy all the while, I will be content.”

Photo caption: Blugold Mattheus de Waard will have two very different kinds of internships behind him when he graduates, one in Africa and one in Wisconsin.