St. Olaf Magazine | Fall 2019

Piper Center Spotlight: Connections

San Francisco Connections Front row, L–R:  Khanh Quang Ngo ’21, Anderson Chen ’20, Arbind Shrestha ’19, Cuong Quoc Nguyen ’19, Thong Hein Vo ’21, William Cheek ’19, Mikhail Lysiuk ’20, Rustam Kosherbay ’19, Danica Meier ’20, Nancy Rutoh ’20, Panha Son ’21. Back row: Stacey Longwich (Piper Center), Kris Estenson (Piper Center), Nikesh Yadav ’19, Bidit Sharma ’19, Alexander Currey ’19, Rob Berger ’21. Photographed at the San Francisco Ferry Building in February 2019 by Frédéric Neema/Polaris

The Connections Program, which connects sophomores, juniors, and seniors with alumni, parents, and friends of the college in various U.S. cities, has two main goals: give students an opportunity to explore a variety of career possibilities and introduce them to a particular city or region.

“Connections students build a network of support while getting a firsthand look at Oles who are using their liberal arts education to pursue meaningful employment across many different industries,” says Kristine Estenson, associate director of alumni engagement at the Piper Center, who has led more than 650 students on 27 Connections trips since the program began in 2011. “Students also have a chance to envision themselves working and living in what might be a new city for them.”

St. Olaf offers four to five Connections trips every year during fall break, Interim, and spring break. Groups of 10 to 35 students attend each one, depending on the program, in cities like New York, Denver, Boston, Chicago, Madison, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Washington, D.C., and the Twin Cities. Each program is focused on a handful of industries, running the gamut from finance, journalism, and technology to the performing arts, social impact, health care, and government. The cost to students is $300 to $350 per trip, and scholarships are available to those with demonstrated need.

Connections trips run from Sunday morning to Tuesday evening, beginning with small groups of two or three students exploring a city with a young alum.

“This exploration has been a valuable piece of the program,” Estenson says. “The students know the alum’s neighborhood and have to figure out public transportation to get there. They see where alums live, learn about the search for housing, and ask all sorts of questions about neighborhoods, transportation, social life, et cetera. It’s a good reality check.”

Monday and Tuesday are filled with site visits to companies and organizations for roundtable discussions with alums and their colleagues. Again, the students divide into small groups according to the industry they’re most interested in. Evenings include larger alumni and parent gatherings for networking and socializing.

Estenson notes that the Connections Program wouldn’t be as successful as it is without the engagement of alumni. “My job is so enjoyable because of the support of Oles who are eager to meet with students,” she says. “Connections only works when you have engaged alumni you can rely on, and that’s something St. Olaf is blessed to have.” 

Ramsey Walker ’14
Program Manager, Newman Center for the Performing Arts, University of Denver
Denver, Colorado
Ramsey Walker, photographed at Red Rocks Park, Colorado, by Ellen Jaskol / Polaris

“The Connections trip helped me realize I wanted to live here, and had a direct line to what I’m doing now.”

Ramsey Walker’s career path has benefited from a bit of serendipity. Nervous about his prospects after graduation, he applied “on a whim” for the Denver Connections trip — focused on healthcare, environment and sustainability, and marketing — during spring break of his senior year. About to hold a B.A. degree in music, he was curious about corporate marketing opportunities versus working in nonprofit arts administration. He also was mildly interested in the idea of moving to Colorado, and Connections let him explore Denver as a potential residence. While there, Walker met arts administrator Sarah Johnson Whitnah ’08 at an alumni picnic at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a connection that would come in handy about a year later.

“Connections was great at forcing me to think critically about what I actually wanted to do,” Walker says. Visits to various companies helped him discern differences between working for large corporate marketing firms versus smaller, niche organizations. “It was interesting to learn about the kind of work that was open to me,” Walker says.

After graduation, Walker worked in tour marketing and logistics for the St. Olaf Band and the St. Olaf Orchestra as a fifth-year intern in St. Olaf’s Office of Music Organizations. He helped plan the band’s tour appearance at the University of Denver’s Newman Center for the Performing Arts, an assignment that reconnected him with Whitnah, who was on staff there.

By the time his internship ended, Walker had set his sights on moving to Denver. “The Connections trip helped me realize I wanted to live here,” he says. In spring 2015, he landed a job as event coordinator at the Newman Center, thanks in part to Whitnah’s influence and support.

“Sarah put a good word in for me and got my résumé in front of the hiring manager,” says Walker, who in 2017 became the center’s program manager. He now books touring ensembles and guest artists and develops community and educational partnerships.

“Connections had a direct line to what I’m doing now,” Walker says. “Without my connection to Sarah, I wouldn’t be where I am.” He’s giving back to Oles now, too, by attending Denver Connections events as an alumnus. “It’s such a great program for helping students leverage St. Olaf’s dedicated and well-connected alumni network.”

Elijah Verdoorn ’18
Software Engineer, Pandora Media
Oakland, California
Elijah Verdoom, photographed at Pandora, Oakland, California, by Frederic Neema / Polaris

What drove me to Connections was that I needed to see what might eventually be my future.

Elijah Verdoorn got his first glimpse of the Bay Area on the San Francisco Connections trip — focused on biotech, entrepreneurship, and technology — during Interim of his junior year. As a computer science and mathematics double major, Verdoorn already knew that Silicon Valley was the place to be if he wanted to work at the forefront of technological development, with companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple headquartered in the area.

“Throughout college, I increasingly realized that coming out here to live and work would give me opportunities beyond what I might find in the Midwest,” Verdoorn says. “What drove me to Connections was that I needed to see what might eventually be my future.”

While the site visits to companies and networking opportunities with alumni in the technology field were important to him, Verdoorn says that the chance to physically set foot in California had the biggest impact.

“Walking around, I wondered, ‘Do I fit in?’ ‘Do I feel comfortable?’ ” he recalls. While two days isn’t a lot of time to answer those questions, the opportunity to get a feel for the Bay Area while assessing companies’ cultures and work environments allowed him to determine that, yes, working in technology in the area was within his reach.

“The Oles I met encouraged me to continue applying for internships,” he says. “It was great to see myself in these alums. They were driven and intelligent, and they had the technical acumen that I wanted to learn from. They also helped me see that working and living here was achievable.”

Verdoorn interned as a software engineer at Pandora, an Internet radio company, in the summer of 2017, an opportunity he doesn’t think he would have accepted — 1,500 miles from home — sight unseen. “Connections let me have the experience of testing the area out,” he says. At the end of the internship, Verdoorn was offered a full-time job with Pandora and, after graduating early from St. Olaf in December 2017, he returned to California permanently to start work as a software engineer for the company. He currently builds algorithms that utilize Pandora’s database of millions of hand-analyzed songs to improve a music listener’s experience.

“It’s truly exciting work using cutting-edge technology and machine learning with something as cool as music,” Verdoorn says. He continues to be an advocate for the Connections Program, hosting current Oles at Pandora during the most recent Connections trip to the Bay Area. “I enjoyed seeing myself in them from the other side of the experience,” he says.