Connecting to Career Paths
Last October a group of 16 St. Olaf College students touched ground in Denver, Colorado, excited to explore the city and the career field of environmental sustainability. Their next few days were packed full of connections — with alumni, career center staff, and each other. The trip even included time to connect with St. Olaf President Susan Rundell Singer.
“This program was awesome. Not only did I have a wonderful time getting to know the alumni community in Denver, but I created real connections with the individuals participating,” says Hannah Richey ’24.
A collaboration between the Piper Center for Vocation and Career and the Office of Alumni and Parent Relations, the Connections Program has become a signature way for St. Olaf students to explore career paths.
Rotating through nine cities, each trip takes place over either the spring, fall, or J-term break, focusing on two to three career fields that that city is well known for. Each trip provides 15-25 students the opportunity to explore, engage, and cultivate meaningful connections.
Hannah Richey ’24 engages in conversation during the Denver Connections Program. Photo by Fernando Sevilla Hannah Richey ’24 engages in conversation during the Denver Connections Program. Photo by Fernando Sevilla Hannah Richey ’24 and her classmates listen to a presentation during the Denver Connections Program. Photo by Fernando Sevilla
The Denver Connections program is unique in that it focuses on only one field: environmental sustainability. The participating students ranged from sophomores to seniors, and their majors ranged from environmental studies to math to music and political science.
“The Connections Program is an amazing experience and opportunity for students,” says Piper Center Senior Associate Director Nate Jacobi, who specializes in coaching students interested in environmental careers and attended the Denver trip. “At the heart of it, it’s an opportunity for exploration.”
“A key takeaway from the program for me is that career paths are not linear, and we don’t always know what opportunities meeting people will bring us. It’s important to trust the process, try new things, and ask lots of questions.”Hannah Richey ’24
Angie Oscal Orrego ’24, who is majoring in Spanish, says she was initially interested in the program because she loves Denver, but was excited to learn about careers in the field through conversation and exploration.
Previously, Orrego was pursuing a major in environmental studies because of her passion for the outdoors, but eventually realized it wasn’t the right fit for her. However, through panels and discussion with alumni, she realized that marketing in the environmental sustainability industry might be just right.
“As a first-generation college student, I’m the first person in my family to have to figure out everything career-related after college,” Orrego says. “So to learn about marketing, and how it can be for a nonprofit that is doing the work that I’m passionate about rather than a corporation — that was mind-blowing.”
Now Orrego is pursuing a business and management studies concentration, which is designed for students pursuing business-oriented careers like marketing.
Angie Oscal Orrego ’24 (center) listens to a presentation during the Denver Connections Program. Photo by Fernando Sevilla Angie Oscal Orrego ’24 and her classmates connect with environmental educator Rebecka Miller ’19 (seated on the ground, center). Photo by Fernando Sevilla Angie Oscal Orrego ’24 and her fellow travelers have a little laugh during the Denver Connections Program. Photo by Fernando Sevilla Angie Oscal Orrego ’24 and Sadrin Mukamba ’24 participate in the conversation during the Denver Connections Program. Photo by Fernando Sevilla
The program is also an opportunity for students to gain confidence, networking skills, and envision themselves as graduates — but also to know it’s okay to not have it all figured out.
Richey, who is majoring in environmental studies and math, is currently pursuing a career in environmental consulting.
“A key takeaway from the program for me is that career paths are not linear, and we don’t always know what opportunities meeting people will bring us,” she says. “It’s important to trust the process, try new things, and ask lots of questions.”
This sentiment was echoed by all the students who went on the trip, and something that the panelists encouraged by sharing their own non-linear experiences.
Orrego says that the people she got to talk to, and the places she was in, helped her realize that she doesn’t need to have her entire career figured out right now.
Beth Jensen ’02, who is the director of climate and nature impact at Textile Exchange, was one of several alumni that students on the program had the opportunity to meet.
“I wanted to impart to the students the story of my journey into a sustainability career, so that they can hit the ground running in a way that I didn’t have the opportunity to do 20 years ago when these types of jobs were still fairly new,” she says.
Lincoln Bramwell, the chief historian at the U.S. Forest Service and the parent of a current St. Olaf student, also participated in the Connections Program. He enjoyed sharing about the path that led him to his current role.
“No one graduates from their undergrad and walks into their dream job,” he says. He emphasized to students that at this point in their career journey, they are right where they should be.
“Seeing the light bulbs go off when students have an idea of what careers might be possible is great, but seeing them talk to young alumni with rewarding careers and realize ‘Oh, this could be me in a couple of years,’ is really exciting.”Piper Center Senior Associate Director Nate Jacobi
Both Jensen and Lincoln were impressed with the quality of questions that the students asked. “As a parent,” Bramwell says, “it was really refreshing to see eager, bright students from the school where I just sent my child.”
Another key aspect of the Connections Program, says Jacobi, is giving students the opportunity to envision themselves in the shoes of young alumni.
“Seeing the light bulbs go off when students have an idea of what careers might be possible is great,” says Jacobi, “but seeing them talk to young alumni with rewarding careers and realize ‘Oh, this could be me in a couple of years,’ is really exciting.”
During the Denver Connections trip at the Alliance Coalition for Action, the students were split into groups and given a real-life problem to solve from the companies where the alumni on hand work. They all pointed to it as one of the most enriching elements of the program.
“It gave me a boost of confidence because it demonstrated that I had the tools to come up with thoughtful contributions to real world problems people are trying to solve in the environmental field,” says Richey.
Serenity Lilly ’26 agrees, adding that the exercise “allowed us to think about how we might fit into those positions, and to apply what we’ve been learning in class to real-world problems.”
The student participants also got to see firsthand just how well their St. Olaf education will translate to the working world upon graduation.
“A liberal arts degree is just so useful and relevant to the nimbleness that is required by today’s business environment — particularly in the nebulous field of sustainability,” says Jensen.
To underscore the interconnectedness of the liberal arts, the St. Olaf students studying careers in environmental sustainability were in Denver at the same time as the St. Olaf Orchestra traveled to the city as part of its national tour and St. Olaf President Susan Rundell Singer visited to deepen connections with students and alumni. She embraced the opportunity to offer her own mentorship as well.
“She was sitting down at all the different tables, and I could overhear her giving career insights and tips from her experience,” Jacobi says. “It was really amazing to see her interacting so closely with the students.”