BUFFALO, N.Y. – Christine DiGiacomo is rare among college
graduates. Not only did she secure a job before earning a
bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from the
University at Buffalo in May, but her hunt ended before
“I don’t think I would be where I am today without
the experiences I had,” she said from Houston, where she has
begun a two-year management training program at Cameron, a leading
provider of flow equipment products, systems and services to
worldwide oil, gas and process industries.
The company accepted 35 engineering graduates into its Global
Rotational Development Program (GRDP) this year after visiting 15
campuses across the country. Nicole Cormier, leadership development
program coordinator for the GRDP Operations and Supply Chain
program, said that those selected display motivation, good
communication skills, a knack for learning rapidly, an ability to
deliver results and meet customer expectations, and an aptitude for
coping with pressures and setbacks.
DiGiacomo believes two features of her resume had the greatest
impact: a full-time summer internship in the process engineering
department at MOD-PAC in Buffalo, and a Six Sigma Black Belt
certification earned after completing a two-semester project at
Saint-Gobain Ceramic Materials in Wheatfield.
UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) Dean Liesl
Folks, PhD, wants more success stories like DiGiacomo’s. At
the very least, she aims to offer students a greater understanding
of their options as they decide on their post-UB careers, and
increase their preparedness for entering the engineering
She is instituting an initiative to bring more
“experiential learning” to undergraduate engineers. A
new coordinator has been appointed to manage a
“smorgasbord” of outside-of-the-classroom activities,
including engagements of just a few hours to longer-term
commitments like internships. It will roll out to graduate students
as there is interest.
Interaction with industry varies among the seven SEAS
departments. For example, industrial engineers complete a field
project as part of their senior capstone internship. Other
departments do not have such requirements, but undergraduates find
opportunities on their own, with the help of faculty, or through
centers like UB TCIE, whose student Black Belt program enabled
DiGiacomo’s industry-recognized certification.
An estimated 60 percent of SEAS undergraduates obtain
experiential learning of some form. Folks’ objective is to
raise it to 95 percent in three years.
Fueling that effort is UB President Satish Tripathi’s
mandate that the university engage more strongly with the external
community and Folks’ mentoring experiences.
“For industry, there’s a huge advantage to being
able to ‘try before you buy’ through internships that
often lead to job offers,” said Folks, who was recognized
this spring with the AVS Excellence in Leadership award for
mentoring science and engineering students during years spent in
Architectural and engineering consulting firm Wendel regularly
employs full-time summer interns across disciplines –
including architects and civil, mechanical and electrical engineers
– at its Amherst headquarters. Employment Recruitment
Specialist Carla Hart estimates that eight of every 10 interns are
from UB. The university’s programs, maturity of students and
convenient location make for an ideal fit.
“We groom the person in hopes there will be a full-time
job for them,” Hart said, mentioning that in addition to
serving on meaningful projects, students typically undergo a
training program. They are asked about their learning interests
and, many times, request soft skills-related topics, such as
interview techniques or how to bridge generational gaps.
Hart added: “It’s nice for us to be able to train
and start to mold them, in hopes that they will be a future Wendel
Some students stay to work through the fall. Others return for
another summer. Several have been hired.
Folks also sees value in short-term commitments, especially when
considering UB’s “Finish in 4.” That program
pledges to provide entering freshmen with academic resources needed
to graduate in four years, but requires students to adhere to tight
schedules which may preclude internships.
She envisions incorporating a European work-study model into
UB’s new Winter Session that debuts in January 2014. Students
would spend two or three weeks at a company, working with a
multi-disciplinary team to help solve a problem.
Benefits have also surfaced from half-day
“shadowing” experiences. When UB alumnus Michael Hooven
began connecting students with companies, he didn’t foresee
the impact it would have. Three engineering students who completed
their sophomore year this May are working in paid summer
internships in their fields, following mentoring from Hooven.
Hooven’s volunteer involvement developed organically after
contributing to a UB Alumni Association career event. Since
September, he has aligned multiple opportunities for a handful of
students from engineering, business and communication disciplines.
Companies agree to host a small number of students for two to four
hours. The students sit alongside one employee or more to discover
workplace responsibilities and roles.
As he began making phone calls on behalf of Department of Civil,
Structural and Environmental Engineering (CSE) students, he said he
expected to hear, “No, we’re too busy.” However,
“it’s been quite the contrary. I think these companies
realize that these are the civil engineers of the future,”
Companies hope the few invested hours will better prepare
students for the workforce. Employers say that shadowing provides a
glimpse into what a company does and highlights skills, such as
writing, communication and working on a team, that are necessary in
addition to foundational theory.
Hooven’s experiences and Wendel’s track record are
examples of the strong, local business support for engaging UB
students. Folks’ goals are to expand the regional base while
leveraging the 28,000 engineering alumni worldwide and establishing
relationships with Canadian-based companies.
“There’s pretty limited diversity here, so
they’re not seeing how diverse the real world is,”
Folks said, explaining that exposure to cultural and ethnic
diversity is important for a largely local undergraduate base.
“And an understanding of global trade is something that most
Western New York students are not all that familiar
CSE Department Chair Andrew Whittaker, PhD, agrees that industry
experiences are a necessary academic program component.
“Too often, I think our students go to an interview and
they answer questions, but they don’t ask a lot of
questions,” he said. “The interview is meant to be a
dialogue, and an internship helps you craft the questions that you
need to ask.”
He compared classroom learning to a monologue, in that
information is consumed and feedback is given via homework and
exams. Internships are more like a conversation.
“Once you move into the real world, you find that you work
with many different types of professionals,” Whittaker said.
“It opens the eyes of many of our students – that civil
engineering is not particularly linear and work is influenced by
DiGiacomo’s introduction at MOD-PAC taught her that not
all issues are cut and dry. Eight months at Saint-Gobain reinforced
the value of workforce support, when she needed to gain operator
buy-in for optimizing a set of systems and increasing
“When I told them what I was doing, they said, ‘Good
luck with that. We’ve been trying to do that for
years,’” she said.
Guidance from company liaisons and a program mentor steered
DiGiacomo to get involved in shop floor operations, resulting in
greater cooperation and meeting her goals.
“It’s a game-changing experience for students to get
inside an organization and see how it functions,” Folks said.
“I think it also does a lot to round them out professionally
so that, when they graduate, they look like potential
Hooven can attest. After each shadowing session, he notices
“I think this has really given students a step up, just
through interaction with professionals in the workplace,” he
said. “I have seen the development in them.”