Skye Vander Laan '15 (center)
Skye Vander Laan '15 (center)

Written by

How does a Whitman student go about landing a high-impact internship? Take it from Skye Vander Laan ’15, who has recently been named one of Whitman’s 11 fall interns: the answer is definitely not lurking somewhere inside your comfort zone.

“It was really hard to do,” Vander Laan, an economics major, said of his initial outreach to the Walla Walla Small Business Development Center last spring. “The drives to all these meetings with people I’d never met before were nerve-wracking.”

Vander Laan pushed through his discomfort with support from Student Engagement Center staff, who helped him find a professional way to approach community leaders. 

“Kim [Rolfe, Director of Business Engagement at the SEC] is fantastic – she coached me on how to send emails, making sure everything was phrased well,” said Vander Laan.

By expressing genuine interest in the experiences of local businesspeople, he made a strong contact in the WWSBD’s Joe Jacobs. He and Vander Laan stayed in touch over the summer, and when an internship position opened up at the beginning of the school year, he found himself at the top of the list.

Vander Laan isn’t alone in his accomplishment. A total of 18 enterprising students were named either fall interns or 2014-15 Whitman community fellows by the SEC this September.

The competitive fellowship and internship programs overlap in their goals by providing funding for Whitman students to focus on experiential learning, gain job skills, acquire contacts and engage with the Walla Walla community. Both programs are designed to open doors for Whitties.

Whitman Community Fellowships

The community fellows – this year, a cohort of seven outstanding seniors – will spend the entire academic year working toward a specific goal at one of a group of local nonprofits that have applied to Whitman for the chance to host a fellow.

According to Victoria Wolff, internship coordinator at the SEC, the successful community partner applications, of which there were nearly 30 this year, detailed how the students, the nonprofits and Walla Walla itself will benefit from a fellow’s presence.

Students gain experience synthesizing what they learn in the classroom with practical, everyday problem solving. The fellowships allow businesses that may not have been able to afford a student worker to hire smart, dedicated employees, which underlines Whitman’s ties to the community. The businesses that receive fellows are deeply invested in Walla Walla, and having the extra help means they can do more. 

“A project that serves a lot of people in the community, and that students will be interested in,” Wolff said, is key. “It’s a way of giving back, which is why we pick local nonprofits.”

The businesses chosen are those demonstrating that “yes, a student could really thrive here,” she said, noting that the SEC takes pains to ensure that the businesses that employ fellows actually have time for lots of supervisory contact. The selection also takes into account a wide range of project types so students from any major might find something to explore.

Emily Ford '15Once the list of community partners is finalized, interested juniors and seniors mingle with potential employers at an SEC-hosted job fair; then, they apply directly to the organizations. Finally, the businesses send their top choices back to Whitman, where Wolff works to match the fits.

In this, the third year of the program, the Fellowships received almost three times as many applications as last year, and Whitman was able to fund eight students for the year.

Emily Ford ’15 found a perfect match with Community Council, working to identify possibilities for outdoor recreation in the Walla Walla region. Ford wasn’t planning to apply for a fellowship until she browsed the list of partners on the web. She’s interested in nonprofits and outdoor recreation as potential facets of a future career, so the Council position called to her; now, she spends her time there interacting with expert invited speakers, keeping records and learning about the ins and outs of the industry.

“It’s a really good way to get to know the Walla Walla community,” she said. “I wish I would have gotten myself into it sooner because there are so many amazing people to meet and so many cool programs. It’s really nice getting to know Walla Walla as a whole rather than just the part Whitman plays in it.”

The SEC supports the fellows by hosting weekly meetings with topics revolving around professional growth, such as finding their strengths through questionnaires, managing work-life balance and how to write a reflective blog post.

This year’s fellows will be based at the following area nonprofit organizations: Blue Mountain Action Council Pro Bono Legal Aid Program, Community Council, Crow's Shadow Institute of the Arts, Downtown Walla Walla Foundation, INK-OUT: A Free Tattoo Removal Project, the Health Center and the Walla Walla Symphony.

The Community Fellows for 2014-15 are Jesus Chaparro ‘15, Arika Wieneke ‘15, Maya Abramson ‘15, Ward Hoskins ‘15, Ashley Hansack ‘15, Emily Ford ‘15 and Claire Boyer ‘15.

Fall Internships

Whitman’s fall internship grants differ from fellowship grants in that they fund semester-long, student-driven opportunities for Whitties. (There are also spring and summer internships.)

In this program, students locate a potential employer in the community, secure an offer of an unpaid internship from that business then fill out a thorough application for funding to Whitman. Selected students will work 50-70 hours per semester.

Like Skye Vander Laan, students who find it uncomfortable to cold-call local businesses and ask for unpaid internships can tap into the SEC’s resources. If necessary, staff members meet with students on a case-by-case basis, for instance, and the SEC maintains a database of job and internship postings called iEngage online, where students can browse potential posts.

“We’re here to help,” Wolff said. “I want students to succeed and find an internship that’s valuable – [they’re] not there to make coffee and copies.”

Whitman funded 11 interns this fall. The students will work with Friends of Children of Walla Walla, the Children's Resilience Initiative, the Sustainable Living Center, Walla Walla County Health Department, Walla Walla Community Hospice, the Walla Walla Small Business Development Center, Helpline, Oregon Wildlife and KUJ 1420 AM.

The Fall Interns are Henry Phillips ‘17, Haley Friel ‘15, Kanupria Sanu ‘17, Evan Heberlein ‘15, Erin Campbell ‘15, Anna Cichocki ‘16, Jyotica Barrio ‘15, Skye Vander Laan ‘15, Annie Sirski ‘15, Eli Robinson ‘15 and Gillian Friedman ‘16.

Process and Product

Three weeks into his Fall Internship, Vander Laan feels like a lot more than a gopher.

His typical twice-a-week role at Walla Walla Small Business Development Center is to participate in meetings, keep databases organized and take notes on client sessions. The WWSBDC offers guidance to small businesses in all stages of development, and as someone who may wish to pursue a career in business, Vander Laan is soaking up the Center’s daily routine. 

“It’s been an invaluable experience just to see the process in business from start to finish; the insight that it gives to see all these real world examples… it can help me anywhere I land,” he said.

His work at WWSBDC makes what he’s learning in his economics classes come to life.

“All the analysis we’re doing, just being around that type of language, seeing out-of-textbook examples,” he said, is educational. “Every once in a while one of those terms we talk about [in class] pops up, of course that’s exciting.”

Victoria Wolff has had lots of positive feedback from students who have taken their studies outside the classroom and into the local business world.

“It’s a learning experience,” said Wolff of the chance to work as a fellow or intern. For some students, their experiences can even translate into future careers. “Students get the training, the supervisor contact – it’s a catalyst.”