Student stories: Animal science externships offer glimpse into careers

University Park, Pa. -- As college upperclassmen and recent graduates eye an uncertain job market, many are looking for an edge that can help them hone their career goals and opportunities. For students in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, increasingly that means taking advantage of externships.

The college's Department of Dairy and Animal Science has cultivated an extensive externship program. It allows students to use their winter and spring breaks for unique, week-long opportunities to work with various agricultural enterprises, all while receiving college credits.

This increasingly popular program paired 31 students -- the largest class in the history -- with 10 sponsors during the winter and spring breaks of 2011.

Harold Harpster, professor of animal science and coordinator of the externship program, explained the program's popularity this way: "Students and sponsors like the limited time frame versus a longer summer commitment." He noted that the shortened experience allows students to sample several career options throughout their time at Penn State.

"Some sponsors work with up to four students over each break and have participated in the externship program for several years," Harpster said.

Melissa Boess, a senior from Warrington, Bucks County, Pa., is a veteran of this program, as the animal sciences major externed with Select SirePower in January 2010. Cargill Meat Solutions of Wyalusing hosted her January 2011 experience. "I thought it would be a great chance to experience what goes on in the other side of the beef industry -- in such a large-scale plant like Cargill Meat Solutions."

Over her week, Boess experienced all aspects of Cargill's Wyalusing operation, from animal unloading to final meat packaging. "I had never been in such a large plant and was amazed at the smoothness of the operation."

Boess is unsure of her post-collegiate career, but she plans to work somewhere in the beef or dairy industries and maintains an aspiration of eventually owning a farm. Her Cargill experience illuminated an area of the industry that "never really crossed my mind before."

Penn State's extensive network of alumni and friends across Pennsylvania, the United States and the world includes those close to the Department of Dairy and Animal Science. "They are committed to helping prepare our students for careers in agriculture and beyond," said Harpster.

Hanover Shoe Farms, a breeder of Standardbred Horses in Hanover, York County, also hosts externship students. "I'd never been involved in the horse-breeding industry," said senior Hilary Pasi, of Glen Mills, in Delaware County. Shadowing veterinarians, farm managers and the foal-watch crew offered Pasi and three other externs a new experience each day, providing them with deeper knowledge and perspective in that industry.

After his four-day externship with Genex in January, junior Jared Risser headed "down under" to Lincoln University in Christchurch, New Zealand. The Bainbridge, Lancaster County, native grew up on a 700-cow dairy farm. His family's farm uses the services of Genex, so the Animal Sciences major, who also is minoring in international agriculture, was drawn to learn more.

His experience ranged from riding with local service technicians and working with dairy geneticists to touring the bull-collecting and semen-handling operations at the company's Ithaca, N.Y. facility.

"Genex is a very progressive and innovative company," said Risser, who hopes to become a large-animal veterinarian. "Through an exciting, educational and fun-filled week, I learned a great deal about the company, the artificial insemination industry and the modern dairy genetics industry." Risser's experience has convinced him to apply for more externships next year.

An externship with Nittany Greyhounds, a canine-rescue organization, convinced junior Lindsey Hallstrom, from DuBois, that a career caring for animals was right for her. "Externships are a way to learn about an industry, be immersed in it and start thinking about life after graduation."

Sophomores Justene Testa, from Latrobe, and Melissa Wise from Bloomington, Ill., both interned with Next Level Horsemanship in Port Matilda. While there, they learned about training horses and evaluating their body language and interaction with humans.

Wise came to Penn State for its well-rounded programs and hands-on experiences, which carry over to its internship and externship opportunities.

"Even the daunting tasks of mucking out all of the stalls each morning had a double meaning," said Testa. "Clean stalls reduce health risks, but they also maintain an image. The owner, Suzanne Myers, repeated the idea that 'the first impression is the one that lasts,' an important truth that carries over to any business."

Junior Nicole Anderson, from Milford in Pike County, enjoyed what she described as a "grand welcoming" each morning from the animals housed at Centre Wildlife Care.

Working alongside volunteers, Anderson's tasks -- such as feeding, cleaning cages and transporting a red-tailed hawk -- took on a special meaning. "Everyone who donates their time to volunteer at the wildlife center does so because of a love for the animals," she said. "They're passionate about this work.

"My goal is to work with as many species as possible," she explained, "so I can not only gain practical work experience, but learn which species I prefer to work with."

She is continuing to pursue that goal by spending the summer of 2011 with yet another Penn State program, studying in France and working primarily with dairy cattle and swine on various farms.

Anderson and other externs encourage fellow students to take advantage of externship opportunities. "Get out of your comfort zone," she said. "Try new things. Experience is the key to learning."

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Last Updated June 20, 2011