Preparing to prosper: Broncos get resume-worthy experience through internships

Contact: Erin Flynn
Three students look at a binder in an industrial setting.

Hannah Kalleward, center, is helping develop safety procedures for Graphic Packaging International's new K2 paper machine, the largest of its kind in North America.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Students are jump-starting their careers through internships and research activities this summer. But long gone are the days of filing papers and fetching coffee. Our Broncos are doing the real work, making lasting and innovative impacts on their industries while gaining extraordinary knowledge both in and out of the classroom.

Md Marsad Zoardar works on a piece of equipment.

Md Marsad Zoardar gets advice from his mentor, Jason Becht, a process control engineer at GPI.

Md Marsad Zoardar has helped Graphic Packaging International (GPI) save more than a million dollars annually with his engineering skills—and he's still in college.

"This is a great place to work, and I love every moment of being here," says Marsad, a computer engineering student working on industrial automation and machine programming through a co-op with the control engineering division in GPI's Kalamazoo converting plant. "I have done many large projects. Some of them have a pretty significant contribution to our production."

His projects have ranged from designing a roller for press equipment that reduces scrap to designing a carton-shingling apparatus. It's valuable industry experience that's helped solidify his career goals.

"It showed me who I am, what I like to do and what I will continue doing in the future," he says. Marsad hopes to continue with GPI as a control engineer after graduating in December 2022. "I love the work environment, the team I work with and the people I am around. This is a very supportive place for me."

Marsad is one of a number of Western students gaining valuable industry experience through internships and other hands-on learning opportunities. Western's most recent Post-Graduate Activity Report shows 91% of graduates reported having completed at least one experiential-learning activity, ranging from internships and co-ops to capstone projects and involvement in extracurricular organizations. Those experiences often turn into jobs; the same survey shows 93% of Broncos were employed or continuing their education within six months of graduation.

"Our students are known for their hard work, grit and career readiness based on their learning in the classroom, participation in our career-focused programs and experiential-learning opportunities," says Lisa Garcia, interim assistant vice president for community partnerships. "Time and time again employers have told me that when they hire WMU interns, they know they are hiring students who are well-prepared to handle the many challenges and demands of the workplace."

Brady Nason, Austin Mabry, Tyler Matta, Meegan Heerlyn, Hunter Shulfer, Hannah Kalleward and Max Vreman are all Broncos interning at GPI.

Western has a large portfolio of local, national and international business partners. In addition to GPI, companies and organizations like Stryker, Kellogg’s, Eaton, Landscape Forms, Ascension Borgess, Bronson Healthcare, Kalamazoo Regional Education Service Agency (KRESA) and Zoetis, among many others, often tap into the Bronco talent pipeline for interns and employees.

"Forging strong partnerships with businesses and organizations in our community benefits everyone," Garcia says. "Businesses and community partners can access the talent they need, and the University is able to share its expertise, which helps to create a better community for all. Our students can find internships and learning opportunities that help them gain valuable, real-world experience to prepare them for their best future."

While internships give Broncos an edge in their job search, financial barriers can limit access. Bolstered by the Empowering Futures Gift, Western's Paid Internship Program launching soon will offer wages for meaningful, resume-worthy work experiences for students—especially first-generation students and those in historically marginalized populations—to explore their career options.

"With paid internships, employers are able to attract broader candidate pools and see greater commitment from their interns to the position, and they will typically give paid interns more significant responsibilities," says Evan Heiser, senior director of career and experiential education.

Making an Impact

Jen Sova, left, speaks with Amanda Pisoni, a Western graduate student pursuing a master's degree in behavioral analysis.

Jen Sova draws on the skills she honed at Western, where she earned bachelor's degrees in audiology and speech-language pathology and a master's in speech-language pathology, as the administrator of KRESA's Early Intervention and Special Services. Job-related skill-building played a crucial role in her own career path.

"Hands-on learning is key to being prepared for the workforce," she says. "Getting to implement techniques and strategies while having onsite mentorship gave me confidence in my abilities as a speech-language pathologist."

Now she has become one of those mentors, working with a number of Western students who assist with learning and behavioral needs of children in preschool special education programs.

"We're really lucky to have a resource like Western; having the intern boost allows us to keep that intensity that we need in our program," Sova says. "We couldn't do what we do without them."

Molly Mattes completed her practicum with KRESA as a master's student. Now as a doctoral student pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology with an emphasis in behavioral analysis, she works as the practicum supervisor for two undergraduates and five master's students working in KRESA's childhood special education classrooms.

Alya Al-Harassi sits on the floor with children surrounded by bright colored blocks and games.

Alya Al-Harassi, center, works with students in KRESA's preschool special education program.

"I think the area where I've grown the most is working on a collaborative interdisciplinary team. Learning to work with others, in multiple capacities, has helped me grow both professionally and personally," Mattes says. "There are so many opportunities for learning and growth at WMU."

Just three weeks into her internship, Alya Al-Harrasi has seen a new passion blossom.

"It's eye-opening to be here. I've never worked with children with autism, so this is a new experience for me. And I think I'm going to go into the field now and see how it goes," says Al-Harrasi, who is studying data science and behavioral science at Western. "It's incredible working with these kids and seeing them develop new skills."

"The most rewarding experience I have had is working with one of my students who previously did not wear his shoes, and I was able to write and implement a shaping procedure to work on having him wear shoes for longer durations. Now, he wears them consistently," adds Alex Becker, a behavioral analysis master's student. "I have already received a lot of hands-on experience, which is vital."

The Bronco Advantage

Mike Doss, GPI's president and chief executive officer, knows the value Western students can bring to companies: He was once in their shoes. Doss began working for GPI—then known as James River Corp.—in 1990 when he was completing his MBA in finance at Western. He earned a bachelor's degree in industrial marketing from the University a year earlier.

"I'm really proud (of my Bronco roots). Students at Western get a great education, they come out of school and do meaningful work, and we have those kinds of opportunities."

Western alumnus Alex Fleck is a dry end assistant superintendent at GPI.

Alex Fleck is a full-time GPI employee by way of an internship. A dry end assistant superintendent on the company's new K2 paper machine, he interned in GPI's tech lab as an undergraduate paper engineering student. The experience led to his full-time job with the company.

"I had already worked with them. They had worked with me and they knew what I was capable of, so they were willing to hire me," he says. The strong set of skills he built in Western's program, in addition to two other industry internships with Verso Corp., helped him stand out among his peers.

"The connections really helped as well as the opportunities to get out in the field and perform real work. The classes also give you a good background; you learn the science of pulp and turning trees into paper and the different aspects of the machines," he says. "The labs were really cool too; we got to work on a lot of the same testing equipment that is used in the mills, and we also got the opportunity to run trials on the Western pilot paper machine."

Western's facility gives students a primer for the technology they'll work on in the industry.

"The coolest thing about my current internship is the opportunity to work on a state-of-the-art paper machine that is less than a year old," says Hannah Kalleward, a paper and chemical engineering double major who is currently working in operations on K2 as well as helping to develop safety procedures for the machine. She hopes to continue with the company full time as a process engineer once she graduates. "My internship experiences at GPI have confirmed that I chose the right career path." ■

A group photo of students in an industrial setting.

Western interns stand in front of the K2 paper machine, named "Project Bronco" as it was being built. "For us, the connection to the University was key. That's why we called it 'Project Bronco.' And we have a lot of Western alums who were working on the project and are now running the actual paper machine," says Western alumnus Mike Doss, GPI's president and chief executive officer.