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College of Continuing Education News

Building hope

Osher Reentry Scholar uses internship to bring water to underserved areas in the Guatemalan highlands --

Ben Lancette.jpg

Internships are valuable networking tools that provide critical on-the-job, hands-on experience for many students or recent graduates. For some, they also prove to be life-changing.

And although Ben Lancette was looking for an interesting and challenging opportunity when he was selecting an internship to complete his Bachelor of Applied Science in Construction Management degree, he certainly wasn't expecting to find a transformative experience.

But not only did his work change his life, it also helped change the lives of others.

Return to learning
"I started at a community college out of high school," Lancette says. "But I just wasn't ready for college at that point, so I ended up leaving and going to work in construction as a laborer. It took me about five or six years before I said, 'I'm ready to go back to school.'"

After finishing his two-year degree, Lancette was unsure which four-year major to pursue. "I thought about Spanish, but didn't think it was quite the right fit. A friend mentioned the College's construction management program, and it sounded great."

After completing his pre-reqs, Lancette enrolled in the program. He also earned the Osher Reenty Scholarship for adult learners returning to school. "Fran [Van Slyke-Zaslofsky, the College's financial aid adviser] was so helpful--she really helped me focus and write the best scholarship letter possible. Trying to work full-time, pay the bills, and go to school is tough, and could have been impossible. My scholarship really helped me balance everything," he says.

Opportunity abroad
By 2010, Lancette had finished his course work, and had only his internship left to complete. "There were several paid internships with great local companies, but I wanted to do something different. I came across an opening for an opportunity to do volunteer work in Guatemala, and I saw a lot of benefits to it, so I applied."

Lancette's role would be building sources of readily accessible water, called tinacos, for individuals living in the poverty-stricken highland regions of the nation. He would also be helping with Long Way Home, an organization working in San Juan Comalapa building educational facilities out of sustainable, recycled materials.

Eager to get started, Lancette was a bit shell-shocked when he arrived in June for his two-month internship. "Wow. It was hectic. I figured there would be someone for me to shadow when I got there, someone who would walk me through the process once or twice, show me the ropes. But I was on my own right from the start. The school building project was in full swing, and the Long Way Home volunteers were super busy and understaffed, so it was pretty much one guy who said, 'okay, I'll show you how to build [a tinaco],' and then he made a model about the size of a pillowcase, and then he turned me loose. The actual structures are 500 gallons or so--about the size of a port-o-potty."

And just like that, Lancette found himself the project scout, selection committee, accountant, construction foreman, and laborer all at once (in addition to helping out at the school).

"I didn't know anything about the village, the area, anything. I had no idea how I was going to find people to build these. Eventually, I asked at the school if they knew anyone who would fit the bill. The first family I selected was a mom and her three kids; her husband had left her and she had a heck of a journey to get her water. Her place was so remote, up this windy road, way out in what seemed like nowhere. I remember when I was going to start work, thinking 'I don't even know if I can remember how to get there.'"

Eventually, though, he found his rhythm, and by stretching the small budget and being resourceful in his supplies, he built tinacos for four more families. "It's not like here," he says, "you can't just pop over to Home Depot or Menard's and pick up the exact length and diameter piece of tubing and the fittings you need if you run out. I shopped at a little place called 'The Miscellaneous Store.' There's a lot of improvised engineering and figuring out how to make stuff work."

And while the job taught him valuable skills that can translate to a career back in the States, the intangible benefits were far greater. "I was immersed in these people's lives. I got to know many of them. They invited me into their homes, cooked for me.

"You know, you can watch all the "National Geographic" programs you want, but it's not going to truly prepare you for something like this. Not until you see the one- and two-room huts with dirt floors and nine kids and a single mother sharing wooden platforms (with no mattresses) for beds do you get how poor these people are. But they're offering to cook for you and the kids all want to help you, and...

"An experience like that changes you. You come back here, and you're ready to change the world. But you have to ground yourself--figure out how it translates to what you want to do now, in the 'real world.'"

And what does Lancette see himself doing, now that he's graduated? "I definitely want to build something that helps people play a role in their community; that changes their lives.

"I've always had the labor skills. And I have the credentials. And, in general, my internship helped me hone a skill set I can apply in my career. But the overall experience in Comalapa? That experience has helped me grow as a person. It may not be the internship everyone would have chosen, but for me, it was incredible."

"Passion-driven internships" give students the experience of a lifetime

Completing an internship is one of the hallmark learning experiences in the Bachelor of Applied Science in Construction Management degree program. And while many degrees require internships, the paths that some construction management students choose is anything but typical.

Says program director Peter Hilger, "An internship is any experience that permits students to utilize their management training effectively and completely. To restrict opportunities to the construction industry alone is too limiting for some students--especially in this economic environment. We want to see if the management/learning objectives of the internship can be obtained, no matter how unusual the experience. [I believe] these students will be better employees--whatever the industry--because their unusual, passion-driven internships give them the experience of a lifetime."

Other recent student internships include:

  • Jason Bihn worked to help restore ancient structures on the Greek island of Athos. "I researched the effects of restoration construction and architectural preservation on culture -- both positive and negative. It was an eye-opening experience. Mount Athos has remained virtually unchanged for over a thousand years... until now. Restoration and preservation have changed Mount Athos and its culture forever."
  • Ann Jacklitch helped design and pilot a building code seminar class for the College. "I didn't choose my internship; rather, it found me. I was conducting an independent research project; and construction management program staff needed to add a course with greater focus on building codes. My internship is still evolving...[but] it's been a rewarding process."
  • Jesse Jacobsen worked for HED Cycling improving parts supply, production, and delivery systems of bicycle wheels for elite racers. "I was looking for an internship that would expose me to various management principles, not only construction scenarios, and my employer [allowed] me to do that by managing people and resources. It was a success because I could apply what I learned in my [construction management] studies to my current career in the military."

Know of an internship opportunity? You can alert Peter Hilger at aphilger@umn.edu.

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