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Internships help shape geology students’ future career plans

| Judy Berthiaume

After she graduates in May, geology major Sarah Kintner is hoping to launch a career as a hydrogeologist, preferably working in the environmental consulting industry or in regulations where she can help protect ground and surface water, prevent contamination or remediate environmental contamination.

Dan Brennan also will earn his degree in geology with an emphasis in hydrogeology this spring, but he plans to attend graduate school and then begin his career working in the energy field.

While the two Honors students see their futures a bit differently, both say the many opportunities they found inside and outside their classrooms at UW-Eau Claire have prepared them well for wherever their professional journeys take them.

Research, service projects, field work, athletics and Honors classes all are among the experiences they say enhanced their time as Blugolds.

But both seniors say that it was their summer internships with industry leaders that have most influenced how they see their futures.

“Most academic work is aimed at teaching you the fundamentals, or teaching you to think,” Kintner said. “There’s really no way for a class to cover the complexities of a real-world experience  My internship gave me a peek into the professional world, allowing me to see the connections between school work and a professional job, and allowing me to experience things that aren’t possible at school.”

For example, during her internship with Barr Engineering in Minneapolis, she spent four weeks doing geologic drilling that included supervising a drill team and classifying and logging soil samples.

“In school I’ve classified soil, but the internship gave me a far fuller experience, one that will help me stand out from other applicants and really impress a future employer,” Kintner said.

Brennan’s summer as an environmental intern with Unimin Corp. in Mankato, Minnesota, also influenced his plans for his immediate future.

“Several of my internship mentors were big supporters of me pursuing a master’s degree right away so I’ve applied to several fieldwork-intensive graduate programs,” Brennan said, noting that he’s not yet decided on which graduate school he’ll attend.

As an intern with a leading producer of industrial nonmetallic minerals, Brennan spent the majority of his time with Unimin working with the environmental affairs department on environmental monitoring, permitting and compliance.

He also worked with Unimin's sedimentary geologist, working in the field alongside roto-sonic drillers, sorting and describing sediment cores, he said.

“I experienced many facets of the nonmetallic mining industry ranging from environmental, to geological, to operational,” Brennan said. “This real-world work experience has helped me gain an understanding of the economic and environmental considerations that are taken into account when mining industrial sand.”

The internship helped Brennan demonstrate his scientific knowledge as well as the interpersonal skills he will need to succeed in a professional environment, said Jamie Swenson, the environmental affairs manager at Unimin who supervised Brennan during his internship.

Brennan came to Unimin with an ability to research, review and process data, and quickly understand tasks assigned, Swenson said.

“He also was eager to learn and was able to communicate, which is essential to anyone in any organization,” Swenson said. “Dan’s personality, behavior, flexibility and ability to interact made him a great intern. A takeaway that I can’t emphasize enough is that hard skills look great on a resume and get you the interview, but it’s your soft skills that get you hired.”

The internship helped him determine what career path is the best fit for his strengths and interests, Brennan said, noting that his Unimin mentors shared their advice as well as their industry knowledge.

“Energy is going to be a critical and changing industry over my lifespan,” Brennan said of his proposed career path. “I would really enjoy applying what I’ve learned through research, internships and classwork in an energy-orientated geology career.”

Brennan and Kintner were among 11 UW-Eau Claire geology students who gained real-world experience last summer and were paid for it, said Dr. Kent Syverson, professor and chair of the geology department. Several of those paid internships were part of UW-Eau Claire's Responsible Mining Initiative, which is housed in the university's geology department.

The initiative was established in 2013 after the UW System awarded UW-Eau Claire a $451,000 Economic Development Incentive Grant to prepare highly qualified graduates for work in the mining industry, the environmental consulting industry and regulatory agencies such as the Department of Natural Resources.

"These internships are providing our geology students with amazing opportunities to gain practical work experience, as well as graduate with fewer loans," said Syverson. "At the same time, we're benefiting the environmental and mining industries by partnering with them to develop highly skilled professionals to fill their workforce needs and protect the environment."

The interns earn stipends ranging from $7,000 to $13,000, which are paid by the students' employers, Syverson said. The stipends ensure that students gain experience while also earning money to help pay for college, he said.

Geology faculty are reaching out — successfully — to business and industry leaders to create partnerships that benefit Blugolds while also helping to meet the workforce needs of the mining industry and environmental protection, Syverson said.

Swenson said UW-Eau Claire’s internship program is impressive and different from anything she’s seen at other universities.

“I’ve seen UWEC professors go out of their way to immerse themselves in current events, going ‘door-to-door’ to understand what they can do to help minimize the gap between students and employers,” Swenson said. “They network. They communicate. They’ve spent endless hours understanding what employers are looking for to ensure students are prepared when they enter the workforce.”

As a result of those efforts, both the students and organizations benefit, Swenson said.

Students gain valuable knowledge and experience, while bringing to the organization new ideas and value-added knowledge in technology, she said.

And organizations can connect with prospective future employees, something that’s increasingly important as competition has increased to attract and retain talented young professionals from the science fields, Swenson said.

“Internships allow a student to get a glimpse of the business world, gain real-world work experience that looks great on a resume, and obtain an insider’s view to a possible career path before committing to a specific occupation or employer,” Swenson said. “They also help an organization get to know a potential future employee’s interests, abilities and overall fit.”

The opportunity to test out a field that interests her was an invaluable part of her college experience, Kintner said.

“It was reassuring to enter my last year of school knowing that I enjoyed the line of work I was studying and planned to work in,” Kintner says. “But it also has opened my eyes to all the career possibilities that are out there for me. I’ve now decided to work for a few years before grad school to explore what I want to specialize in.”

Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire senior geology majors Dan Brennan and Sarah Kintner