Opening Doors

Posted on December 06, 2019 by Amy Ostroth

Biltmore Estate Biltmore Estate

For many of us graduating from college, getting that first job was difficult. Employers want experience, after all, and how do you get that while you’re still a student? One answer? Internships.

Sweet Briar’s Office of Career Services is committed to building relationships that help students get practical experience while they’re on campus and open doors as they get ready to take the next step into the professional world. “Employers are looking for students with strong communication skills, customer service experience, problem solving abilities and research experience. Internships and work experience allow students to hone those skills,” says Barb Watts, who leads the office.

And while colleges and universities all over the country have internship programs, the quality of those programs is largely determined by the quality of the partnerships the institution forms with organizations who are willing to take on interns.

Fortunately for students at Sweet Briar, the College has developed a number of relationships that lead not only to internships before graduation, but also to jobs after graduation.

One of the most prestigious relationships the College has built is with The Biltmore Company in North Carolina. This is partly because Dini Cecil Pickering, the great-granddaughter of George Vanderbilt, who built the estate, is also a member of the Sweet Briar Class of 1979. Dini serves as president of the family office and vice chair of the board at Biltmore. Through that role, she has made it possible for several Sweet Briar students to take part in the company’s corporate internship program.

Ann Ashley, who heads up the internship program at Biltmore, knows just how important internships can be to students who are looking for that first job. “To see on an application that a student has done an internship can give them a leg up in the experience category,” says Ann. “Internships can give students experience in their major, but more than that, students also gain experience working in a business environment. For young people who have spent most of their lives in an educational environment, the transition to a corporate atmosphere can be difficult. Internships help ease that transition.”

Biltmore is an incredibly diverse organization and as such, the company has several internship programs that hire more than 100 hospitality interns each year. But the program Sweet Briar students have been a part of is much smaller and requires a recommendation from an owner or a company executive. A few years ago, in response to a request from the College, Dini offered to sponsor two Sweet Briar interns each year. Annabeth Griffin ’18 was one of the first students to take advantage of the opportunity for an internship. Today, she’s employed by the company. A Dallas native, Annabeth came to know Sweet Briar through her sister, a member of the Class of 2014. Annabeth wanted to have the same amazing experience her sister had.

Annabeth Griffin ’18 Annabeth Griffin ’18 in front of the Biltmore Estate

Annabeth was finishing up her first year in March 2015 when the school announced that it would close. She became part of a group of students who actively worked to keep the school open. She was a class liaison to Saving Sweet Briar and promised that if the school stayed open, she’d be back for her sophomore year. When school started in the fall, Annabeth jumped in. “I felt the charge to be involved and take ownership of my school,” she says. She got back into riding, stepped up to lead the Campus Events Organization and was captain of the Ethics Bowl team. She was an economics and philosophy double major and a math minor. “I didn’t mean to be a math minor, but took so many random classes that I only needed to take two more to have a minor, so I did.”

It’s that passion and curiosity that made her such a good fit for the Biltmore internship, which she did for two summers: both before and after her senior year. When she first heard about the internship, she was confused; she wasn’t a hospitality major, after all. She visited the Career Services Center, where she talked to Luther Griffith — at the time, Luther was volunteering in the office, but these days he’s serving as the College’s vice president for finance, operations and auxiliary enterprises. Luther told her the internship was a good opportunity to learn about how big companies work and helped her prepare for the interview. “The spots are coveted,” Annabeth says. “And they place you exactly where your interest lies. I told Ann about my work with campus events, so she placed me with the special events office. It was exactly where I needed to be in the company.”

“We don’t really care what their major is,” Ann confirmed. “What’s important to us is character. We want somebody who exhibits a match with our core values and also has academic prowess. Annabeth is a great example of that.”

The experience was everything Annabeth hoped it would be. Nervous in the beginning, she was respectful of the system and of the company. She listened a lot and learned about the company and why it is so successful. Her best advice to young professionals? Learn the corporate culture. “The way you act and portray yourself is everything,” she says. “You can have a great idea, but they’re going to remember who you were.”

Of course, Biltmore isn’t the only place where Sweet Briar students are able to get internships and early-career employment. A number of engineering students have interned and gone on to get jobs with Naval Air Systems Command, often referred to as NAVAIR. The relationship Sweet Briar has with NAVAIR started with an alumna and a Sweet Briar parent.

Lance Tucker’s daughter, Lacey, is a member of the Class of 2020. When Lacey was looking at colleges, Lance tagged along, as parents often do, and learned all about Sweet Briar’s engineering program. He was so impressed by the program and its students that he decided to add Sweet Briar to the colleges he visits as part of his official recruiting duties for Cherry Point. The head of the recruiting department at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland is a graduate of Sweet Briar who regularly attends the Federal Career Expo at the College, helping to further expand opportunities for students.

Samantha Schwartz Sam Schwarts ’13, ’18 at NAVAIR in Cherry Point, N.C.

Samantha Schwartz ’13, ’18 works as a mechanical engineer at the Fleet Readiness Center East in Cherry Point, N.C., in the subsystems department for the V-22 Osprey. Her department focuses on tubing and hoses, the fuel system and the aircraft’s windscreens. “We do maintenance and production support, but also fleet support,” she tells us.

Sam started out at Sweet Briar as business management major with an engineering minor and graduated in 2013. But after being in the business world for a few years, she realized that she was more drawn to engineering jobs, so she went back to finish her engineering degree, which she completed in 2018. Her work with the Osprey is a dream come true. She’s seen the Osprey do demonstrations at airshows, which she attends with her father, and also watched them fly while she was working in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. “You just have to try not to stop in the middle of the road and watch them,” she laughs. “I still get that feeling working with them here every day.”

She says her hands-on experiences in Sweet Briar’s Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program really prepared her for professional work as an engineer, particularly the senior capstone project. The capstone project gives students the chance to work on engineering projects with organizations outside the College. During the project, Sam says, “You can run into communications issues and issues understanding exactly what other people want. I remember complaining to Dr. Yochum and Dr. Brinkman about that and they would just say that we would all thank them for the experience one day. This is probably a major ‘I told you so’ moment for them,” she says about her current job at NAVAIR. “I think every engineer who graduated from Sweet Briar would agree that the most useful experience you get at Sweet Briar is working with other companies and getting that real-life experience.”

Samantha Schwartz ’13, ’18

In fact, this year, Sweet Briar’s capstone students are working on two separate projects for NAVAIR. Lance says the capstone projects will give students another level of understanding about the work that happens at the station. “We’re always looking for technical ability, and we’ve been very happy with what Sweet Briar students know,” he says. “But a lot of what we look for is how they handle themselves. They need to be able to present projects to people from shop personnel to admirals. Sweet Briar’s engineering students are organized and present themselves well.”

His first intern recruit was Sarah Cahoone ’18, who went to Cherry Point in the summer after her junior year and was then offered full-time employment after she graduated. Since then, they’ve hired several students at Cherry Point and several more at Patuxent River.

“The quality of the interns from Sweet Briar has been very good,” Lance tells us. “They’re capable and self-confident. They’re not afraid to speak their mind and hold their ground when they need to. Being in Sweet Briar’s small environment helps them to do that.”

Every engineering major is required to complete an internship, and obviously internships often lead to employment, so the relationship with NAVAIR has been a real boon to Sweet Briar’s engineering students. “I think over the last three years, we’ve hired about half of Sweet Briar’s engineering graduates,” Lance says.

Practical experience is especially important for teachers. Sweet Briar has had a Master of Arts in Teaching program since 2005 and recently bolstered its undergraduate offerings by launching a B.A. in elementary education and teaching. Of course, undergraduates who have pursued teaching certificates and M.A.T. students at Sweet Briar have always incorporated classroom experiences into their curriculum because hands-on learning has been central to Sweet Briar’s mission from day one. Starting this fall, however, new MOUs (memoranda of understanding) with Amherst and Nelson County Schools define student-teaching opportunities, and a new yearlong residency program is making it possible to place M.A.T. students in classrooms for an entire year.

Molly Harper ’19 and Morgan Rayno ’20 are both at Amherst County High School through the residency program. It’s been great, Morgan says, but not without challenges. “Although I’ve been in classroom settings before, I haven’t been an actual student- teacher before,” she admits. “I’m currently student-teaching with a teacher who is doing only government this year, so I’m with all seniors.

Three out of the five classes she teaches are co-taught, as many of the students have IEPs [Individualized Education Program]. I have learned a lot about accommodating and servicing those who need just a little extra help.” It’s early in the year, Morgan recognizes, so there’s a lot she has yet to learn. But she’s already picking up on some core concepts. “I have learned that building relationships, or at least building a positive rapport with the students, is important to everyone’s success,” she tells us. “Mutual respect and communication is key, especially with the older students.”

Emily Hawk ’18, M.A.T. ’19 Emily Hawk ’18, M.A.T. ’19 in front of her classroom door

For Emily Hawk ’18, M.A.T. ’19, the training wheels, so to speak, have already come off. Last year, she student-taught at Amelon Elementary School. This year, she has her own Kindergarten class at Central Elementary School in Amherst. Staying in the same school district was a deliberate choice.

“I was so impressed by the leadership of the county that I decided to apply for a job here, hoping that I would get one at a school I was familiar with,” Emily tells us. “In my earlier years in the education department, I had a few practicums at Central Elementary, one with a Kindergarten teacher named Ms. Murphy. When they called to offer me the Kindergarten position, I was thrilled! I walked into my classroom and, low and behold, I was now the Kindergarten teacher in Ms. Murphy’s room, the same room I had been a practicum student in years before.”

Each day, Emily is responsible for a lot of little things that make up a big part of her students’ development: from teaching ABCs and finally, how to read, to educating them about their emotions, about how to be a good friend, and how to tie their shoes. The day starts with breakfast, followed by math, writing, lunch, recess, reading, snack, content, recess and resource.

“I think the biggest challenge has to be controlling 18 5-year-old bodies at once,” Emily says. “It is impossible, and it took me a few weeks to learn that even when I am doing my VERY best, someone will still want to do something else. I think the very best part came the first day I had a sub. I left my class in someone else’s hands and when I came back, every single one of them came running over to me and gave me the biggest hug I’ve ever had. That is what makes it worth it.”

It’s hard to believe Emily never saw herself as a teacher. Growing up, she wanted to be many things, she remembers: a nurse, a veterinarian, a dolphin trainer even. “But if you had told 10-year-old me I would be a teacher, I would have laughed,” she says.

Perhaps Sweet Briar’s education program had a hand in steering her in the right direction, too — or at least reinforcing that teaching is, in fact, the right path for her.

“I had a wonderful M.A.T. experience,” Emily says. “My classes with [Assistant Professor of Education] Meredith McCool really helped shape me into the educator I am today. They reminded me I was human and that may be the greatest lesson I learned. Certainly I learned about pedagogy, curriculum and how to implement assessment and instruction as my other new colleagues did, but I learned how to let things roll off my back, and when to let go and go home at the end of a day. Since I was in my student teaching placement for the entire year, I had a whole picture view of life as a teacher. I got to see the good, the bad, and it made me realize that every day matters, but each day does not define you.

“Teaching is hard. It is not what I expected. I think that having your own classroom is something no amount of training can prepare you for since each class that comes through your door is totally different than your last. Each day brings new challenges and sometimes there is no way to anticipate them, but ultimately that is what makes the job so fun!”

Emily Hawk ’18, M.A.T. ’19 Emily Hawk ’18, M.A.T. ’19 in her classroom

Emily isn’t alone at Central. This semester, there are three elementary education candidates from Sweet Briar who are placed at Central two hours a week for their field experience, Meredith says.

She’s excited: “I am looking forward to popping into Emily’s classroom when I’m visiting my current students at Central — and to the day when I can place our teacher candidates in Emily’s classroom!”

This story originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of the Sweet Briar Magazine.