In the Department of Food Science and Technology, part of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, 80 percent of graduating seniors have done experiential learning such as internships or undergraduate research.

That’s not quite good enough for Herbert Bruce, assistant professor of practice for undergraduate education and the department’s bridge experience coordinator, who hopes to get the stats to 100 percent. “We really push our students to do these kinds of things because it makes them valuable for the workforce,” he said. 

As part of the university's new Bridge Experience Program, Bruce and other faculty members are working with the department’s alumni network to line up internship opportunities and formalize partnerships with industry players such Smithfield Hams and Pepsi. A food- and health-focused semester abroad at the Steger Center in Switzerland will be offered in fall 2023.

The department also is planning new classes: one to introduce food science careers to first- or second-year students, another to give students a chance to present about their bridge experiences. “There’s no learning without reflection,” said Bruce, “so we want to encourage that.”

Three former and current food science and technology majors explained how experiential learning changed their lives for the better, at Virginia Tech and beyond.

I did a 15-month work co-op at Hershey

Colleen Dommel Funkhouser at the Hershey factory, covered in cocoa powder.
Colleen Dommel

Who: Colleen Dommel, 2020 food science and technology alumna

How it happened: After a Hershey recruiter presented to the VT Food Science Club, Dommel sent him her resume. Her double major in Spanish (Hershey has plants in Mexico) and her ability to explain projects she’d worked on led to an offer for an on-site work co-op that lasted through two semesters. 

What she did: Dommel’s paid co-op was in the continuous improvement department at Hershey, which enhances profit margins by testing small formula changes — say, using a less expensive sugar supplier. She spearheaded the process of swapping out a candy bar ingredient that saved Hershey over $1.5 million. “I was actually doing things that really impacted the company,” she said. Coming back to Virginia Tech, she breezed through classes in food chemistry, quality assurance, and product development because of the skills she learned at Hershey. “I could be sitting in food chem, and we’d be talking about sugar crystallization, and I'm like, ‘Oh, I made toffee. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.’” 

What came next: As Dommel's co-op was ending, her manager offered to make a position specifically for her. “I told them that I had a full calendar year of school left,” she said, “and they were like, ‘No problem, we'll hold the position for you.’ That made me feel really good.” Now she’s a food technologist at Hershey — and she’s the one recruiting students for co-ops. (Yes, there is candy everywhere at Hershey. Unfortunately, there is no chocolate river.)

I interned as a summer orientation leader at Virginia Tech

Jakob Baker

Who: Jakob Baker, 2022 food science and technology alumnus

How it happened: After seeing a pamphlet about the orientation leader internship program in the dining hall his first year on campus, Baker remembered the words of his mom: 'If you don’t get involved, you're doing college wrong.' He figured why not and applied.

What he did: Baker led groups of incoming students around campus and facilitated discussions around serious topics from sexual assault to implicit bias to Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community. An associated leadership course taught him soft skills such as public speaking, cultural sensitivity, problem solving, and communication. The internship wasn’t science-related, but learning how to talk to people later helped him land lab assistant positions in three research labs, most recently Laura Strawn’s food microbiology lab. “I think a huge part [of getting research positions] is how well you're going to mesh with the lab,” Baker said.

What came next: Baker started a graduate program in food microbiology at Cornell University in fall 2022. All the extracurriculars he did at Virginia Tech helped him get in. “It’s something that definitely lends to more of a broader, holistic scope as a student," Baker said.

I was a research assistant in the Sensory Evaluation Laboratory

Mary Salinas

Who: Mary Salinas, food science and technology major, graduating this spring

How it happened: After sending a barrage of emails inquiring about research opportunities (“The amount of professors I have reached out to is unbelievable”), Salinas got a yes from Assistant Professor Jacob Lahne, director of the Sensory Evaluation Lab. She started working there her sophomore year.

What she did: Salinas worked with graduate students and undergrads in food science and technology to set up sensory tests for volunteers sampling food products, from cider to edamame to beer. Though she didn’t take her first class about sensory work until spring 2022, once she did, everything clicked. “Just being able to apply all that information to the lab work that I do is really interesting,” she said. “It’s helpful to put it into practice.”

What came next: The summer after her sophomore year, Salinas scored a brewing internship with Settle Down Easy Brewing Co. in her hometown of Falls Church. The brewery had never hosted an intern before, but managers were so impressed by Salinas’s go-getter attitude — and her hobby of making kombucha — that they created a position just for her.

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