Emily Wells is at a desk, doing research – hardly unusual for a third-year New College student. It’s the research itself that is unusual.
In front of her are two computer monitors. On one is the medical history of a Maryland woman who underwent hip replacement surgery. On the other is a something that looks like a spreadsheet.
Wells is building a timeline of events in the woman’s case, turning a jumble of medical records into a play-by-play of how doctors managed her care, from diagnosis and implant surgery to treatment when the implant deteriorated inside her hip.
She is working at the law firm of Maglio, Christopher & Toale, headed by New College alumnus Altom Maglio ‘90. The firm has built a national practice representing people injured by faulty vaccines or medical devices.
Wells is one of dozens of New College students working in internships this year. They represent an often-overlooked aspect of the New College education, the way it provides a valuable and near-unique preparation not only for further study but also for a career.
In that, they embody a belief of New College President Don O’Shea, that a liberal arts education is the best possible preparation for today’s workplace.
“The whole purpose of liberal arts is to enable students to negotiate the world, one in which careers change, one in which they make connections between their studies and what they will eventually do,” he said.
“The liberal arts is the best preparation for students to read well, to present well, to evaluate well, to think critically, to realize what information they have, what they don’t have, to imagine what other people are thinking, what other opinions are coming, and to be counted and take a stand.”
In 2014, the Board of Governors of Florida’s university system made career preparation crucial to its formula for funding the member institutions. The “performance metric” system included two measures – average salary of recent graduates, and percentage of alumni employed within a year of graduation.
Better linking the liberal arts education to the workplace has been one of President O’Shea’s goals since his arrival on campus in 2012. He addressed it in his four-year plan and soon after his arrival hosted a talk with students on the topic.
O’Shea believes that the idea of the liberal arts being somehow removed from the hurly-burly world of work is misguided.
“The notion that liberal arts is divorced from what you do later on, this ivory tower thing, that’s always been wrong,” he said. “The liberal arts tradition has always been about living, about career and about the work one does after college. In some sense, we’re not doing anything revolutionary. We’re just doing what we should be doing.”
The College now has turned those plans into action, creating a new hub of activity in the heart of the campus. That hub – the Center for Engagement and Opportunity, or CEO – opened this fall in former classroom space in the Jane Bancroft Cook library.
With its name and acronym devised by students, the CEO merges three aspects of post-college life: internships, fellowships and career planning.
In just its first month, 535 students and 62 parents visited or attended the Center’s programs – not bad, for a college of about 800 students.
The turnouts surprised Andrea Knies, the CEO’s internship coordinator, who also organized many of the programs. “You can’t expect to shift organizational culture in a few months,” she said. “But thanks to the outstanding support of this campus, we made great strides in just one semester.”
The students have been coming in for talks with people who have had successful careers in many fields. One was Kate Byrnes, a diplomat with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and a former staffer with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She had a lunchtime talk with students in September.
The next month brought experts from the worlds of finance, technology and entrepreneurship. Jesse Biter told how, while still in high school, he built a company that later sold for millions, funding his venture capital firm.
Students pitched him several ideas, from a bottled drink to a website template to a computer game, and he advised them on the next steps to take to see if their ideas were viable.
New College might seem an unusual audience for Robin Hogan, given her background – a former Army officer and now Morgan Stanley executive. She spoke on how to develop social skills, salesmanship and leadership. The talk drew 30 students, and several stayed late to talk with her about Morgan Stanley’s internship programs.
Alumni, too, have been lining up in support, both by visiting and offering internships.
Norm Worthington, founder and chief executive officer of Star2Star Communications, stopped by campus to tell how he went from an Environmental Studies AOC to law student to technology entrepreneur and head of one of the fastest-growing companies in the country. (Star2Star offers cloud-based communications solutions, and has won recognition from Deloitte Technology, Inc. Magazine, Gartner and other industry watchers.)
And when attorney Altom Maglio heard from Andrea Knies, internship coordinator at the CEO, he was happy to help – not just as a favor to the College, but to help his firm.
“Everyone who works in our firm is extremely busy, and the ability to devote significant time to leaving no stone unturned on a particular question is a luxury we can’t afford,” Maglio said.
“When we give a research project to someone to do exactly that – to leave no stone unturned – that’s extremely valuable. We can rely on a New College student to focus on the important things, to separate the wheat from the chaff, and at the end of the day, distill the information they gather and write up something we can efficiently understand.”
That was an apt description of Wells’ morning.
Improving their game
Soon after she arrived, an attorney assigned a task to her, related to the firm’s lawsuit involving illnesses caused by a vaccine.
An opposing law firm had responded to them with a document citing several medical studies that would exonerate the vaccine. The attorney had Wells track down all the documents in the footnotes to see if they actually backed up the claim.
On a shelf of her cherry desk are some of her resources: copies of “Clinical Infectious Diseases, a Practical Approach,” “Advances in Neurology,” “Vaccines – Third Edition” and “The Washington Manual of Outpatient Internal Medicine.”
But what she needs is rarely at her fingertips. The environmental studies AOC has developed a skill in finding articles normally hidden by paywalls. She visits medical libraries, and at times has gone to Amazon to buy copies of long out-of-print journals or textbooks.
In short, she no longer finds any task particularly daunting.
“It was very intimidating going in there on my first day and finding a stack of papers and having them say, ‘This is what an attorney has found, now I want you to find everything else,” Wells said. “But after a little while you get used to the pace. I had to up my game a little bit, but I’m glad, because this will put me in a much better position for school in the future, and for work as well.”
Edline Francois is also learning to be nimble and thorough in response to client demands. The second-year transfer student, who is concentrating in biology, has an internship in data analytics with the Institute for the Ages, a Sarasota nonprofit group.
The Institute’s mission is to draw upon Sarasota’s large population of active senior citizens to provide companies with focus groups and volunteers to test products, services and policies. Francois works with the Institute’s database to match companies with the right volunteers for a specific project.
Before she even arrived on campus, she spotted an email from Knies about the internship, and jumped at it, both because of her interest in biology and data, and her belief that society needs to better value its oldest members.
“I am fond of information and how we’re taking in that information and how vital it is to us today in technology,” she said. “I like to analyze things, and this just spoke to me because I love what the Institute stands for.”
Director Tom Esselman praises her insight and ability to work independently. “She’s great. She has a real passion for working with seniors. She has the personality for it, and she’s bright, eager and adept when it comes to data.”
Like Wells, Francois has learned to push beyond what she would normally do. “One of the most important things Tom has taught me is to not be afraid of failure. Failure is a stepping-stone to success,” she said. “That’s what he’s doing with the Institute for the Ages. He knows there are going to be roadblocks, but he’s continuing with his vision regardless. He has just said to me, ‘Do not be afraid to take risks.’”
In contrast, Damien Clark’s workday is more regular, but just as challenging.
The thesis student commutes four days a week to Largo, north of St. Petersburg, to work at Alakai Defense Systems. The technology company develops optical sensing technology for defense and homeland security purposes, such as detecting improvised explosive devices.
Clark, a thesis student in chemistry and biology, works eight-hour shifts twice a week in Alakai’s lab, creating samples of molecules that would make up explosives. He creates the samples, tests them in the lab’s Raman spectrometer and records whether the programming identifies it correctly. The work helps Alakai refine the hardware and software it uses to collect and analyze the data.
The company has only one full-time spectroscopist, so Clark is serving a vital role, one that demands the ability to solve problems independently.
“Because I’m so integral, a lot of the times I have to troubleshoot if something doesn’t look right or if there’s an error with the program. It’s helping me build a critical thinking skill – does this spectra look like it should, or is there a shift in the peaks, is there something wrong with it?” he said.
Ken Pohl, director of advanced programs at Alakai, said the firm needed a scientist, not a technician, someone who could approach the work with an understanding of variables and controls. Clark has done just that.
“He’s working out great,” Dr. Pohl said. “He’s able to work in an unsupervised manner, with very minimal oversight. We’re very pleased.”
The businesses have benefitted from the interns’ skills, and the students, in turn, have gained insight into the workplace. Clark is planning to attend dental school, but said his improved lab skills will help his future studies.
Francois is considering medical school, but the internship has opened her eyes to the possibilities of combining her love of biology and data analysis. She’s planning to pursue an internship with Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, which has a strong relationship with New College, and could see herself in a medical research career.
Wells said her plan is further studies in environmental science, but her experience has shown her how a law career is in keeping with New College’s tradition of altruism and empowerment. “They’re helping people who have been hurt, helping them cover their medical bills, and you really want them to get help,” she said.
And her view of the day-to-day work in a law office is more realistic, too.
“I was picturing these tough-as-nails business professionals in their perfectly starched shirts, and screaming, a lot of screaming, and yelling. I was picturing something a lot more intense,” she said. “They’re actually really nice, lovely people and they’re very good at what they do.”
No matter what path Wells, Francois and Clark choose, their internships will serve them well. “Whether a student is planning to begin a career or attend graduate school, an internship is a vital component to being competitive and successful,” Knies, the internship coordinator, said.
Internships are just a piece of the CEO’s portfolio. New College’s long-successful fellowships program has moved into the high-profile CEO, and that has generated much more interest, said fellowships coordinator Courtney Hughes, who held a similar role while working in in the president’s office in Cook Hall.
“There was something really difficult about them getting down to Cook Hall. It was a distance issue, and they just felt really uncomfortable not knowing where to go,” she said.
“But the physical location of the CEO is so open and welcoming, and easily identifiable – it’s across from all of their classes in ACE, it’s right over the pedestrian bridge, right next to the library. That makes it really easy for students to just pop in and say, ‘I just left class with Professor Wyman, and she recommended I apply for a Russian Critical Language Scholarship and I have no idea what that is, or if I’m qualified, but can we meet to talk about it?’ And that’s how a lot of the students have found their way here.
“It’s been a really cool testament to faculty and staff working together to get students aware of these opportunities,” she said.
And it is already paying dividends. New College students have won several Goldwater Scholarships, for exceptional promise in math or science. But this year, for the first time, there were so many applicants that the College had to run an internal competition to narrow the field to the Goldwater program’s maximum of four applicants per college.
Hughes said the key has been making her job a full-time position for fellowship programs.
“Prior to this there were a bunch of us pitching in to help with scholarships and fellowships. But during peak times of the year, since this wasn’t in anybody’s job description, this fell to the wayside,” she said. “And it’s hard to recruit students. You have to stay on top of them. It requires a lot of meetings – a lot of meetings,” she said, laughing.
“We’ve really made a push to have students be accountable in this process. Which takes time. They need to learn you can’t ask for a letter of recommendation two days before it’s due, or it’s on you to figure out how to get out of it.”
Shana Bergman, who was recently awarded a Gilman Scholarship for study abroad, and is in the running for the Goldwater, said the staff commitment is making a big difference. She had applied for scholarships and fellowships before, but fell short each time – until now.
“Courtney makes sure to prioritize each and every student and dedicates the necessary effort to assisting them, and then some,” she said. “Each step of the way, Courtney gave invaluable advice and sculpted my applications so that I would have the best shot at winning, from giving me initial background information to assisting me in submitting my final draft.”
Now, she said, she’s considering perhaps the most prestigious opportunity of all, the new Frost Scholarship, an initiative launched by Board of Governors member Patricia Frost, which provides a full scholarship for a master’s degree at Oxford.
Putting it all together
Internships and fellowships have their own inherent value, but they also serve as a training ground for the world of work – “building career competencies,” said Kim Franklin, the new director of career services.
“As we see success that we’re having with fellowships and with internships, we can see that the outcomes for our students are going to be limitless because they will have had the kind of experiences that we want them to have when they leave New College,” she said. “One of the things that makes us really fortunate is that students have done really important and exciting things—they just didn’t know what to call it.”
Franklin recalled a recent visit to the fourth-year music seminar. She was telling them about the skills that employers look for, like teamwork and salesmanship.
“So I said, ‘Talk to me about when you guys have worked in teams.’ And they all looked at me with that blank expression. Then I said, ‘Who plays in a band? And all of the hands went up. That’s teamwork! And what do you do when you play in a band? They said, ‘Well, we have gigs,’ and I said, ‘So you’ve negotiated contracts?’’’
“New College students have been doing it all along. One of the neat things I get to do is I help them put a name to it.”