Alumni Stories: One Saint Paul internship, three paths forward
Early professional experiences have the ability to guide the trajectory of a career. That is what IonE’s Sustainability Corps program aims to offer – through connecting undergraduate students with summer internship experiences focused on the clean energy transition.
For the past three years, the City of Saint Paul has partnered with Sustainability Corps interns to complete their annual community-wide greenhouse gas inventory. The inventory was completed by Jacob Bechtold in 2021, Autumn Saign in 2022, and Natalie Narváez in 2023, each during their undergraduate career. In the words of Kurt Schultz, Saint Paul’s Clean Energy Manager and site supervisor, these interns have “made the community-wide GHG inventory possible.”
Kurt Schultz described the inventory as a tool to track progress toward their goals of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 and reducing emissions 50% by 2030 from business-as-usual (BAU), as outlined by their Climate Action and Resilience Plan. Kurt detailed that the Sustainability Corps interns have worked to “systematically identify every source of emissions, and calculate the amount from each source.” They acquired data from the residential, commercial, industrial, and wastewater sectors to create their comprehensive inventory.
Each of the interns that completed this inventory came to the program with a different background, and have moved forward in different directions since. Below, the three alums speak about their experience with this internship, as well as their academic and professional endeavors as a whole.
From Intern to Project Manager: Jacob’s Journey in Clean Energy
Jacob, a recent graduate of the Industrial and Systems Engineering program in the College of Science and Engineering, was the first student to undertake this inventory. While reflecting on his time with the City, Jacob said he was grateful that the Sustainability Corps allowed him to gain such meaningful professional exposure early in his academic career. “It can be hard freshman or sophomore year to find work that is relevant to the space you want to go into,” he said. Jacob described realizing, during his internship, how important the work was – recognizing that tracking emissions is the “first step to making decisions that actually reduce emissions.”
Building off of the experience he gained at Saint Paul, Jacob was able to land his next internship with Toro. He credits his ability to speak during the interview process on his direct experience working with Scope 3 emissions through the inventory as one of the reasons he landed the job. Now, Jacob works as a project manager for Renewable Energy Partners, a local solar developer based in the community of North Minneapolis, where he manages the energy systems projects that they implement around the state.
When asked if he had any advice that might be helpful for students or aspiring professionals, Jacob stressed that thoughtful, effective communication is essential to advancing sustainability. “Sustainability is changing the status quo,” he said, “which is not easy to convince people to do.”
Applying Sustainability Beyond the Obvious: Autumn’s Path to Consulting
In the second year of the project, Autumn applied her knowledge as a Sustainable Systems Management major in the College of Food and Agricultural Science to successfully complete the GHG inventory. Autumn valued the opportunity to develop her soft skills and create meaningful connections during her time at this internship. She expressed that she was able to gain “contacts that work for the City, connections at local businesses, and a greater understanding of how the Twin Cities works on policy and environmental impact level.”
Autumn’s advice for students and aspiring professionals is to not only narrow in on organizations that position themselves as sustainable when job-hunting, since she has found that there are “always opportunities, even in a company that doesn’t market itself as environmental ambassador, to make a difference.”
Autumn moved forward from this internship to work as a building systems intern at Stantec, and now as an associate at the architectural and engineering firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. Although the company is not directly in the sustainability field, she works to implement sustainability where she can in her consulting work with building enclosures and historical preservation.
Interdisciplinarity Breeds Innovation: Natalie’s Navigation of Sustainability
Natalie, the most recent intern to complete this project, brought her interdisciplinary academic background from the Individualized Studies program through the College of Liberal Arts, where her focus spans Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM), Psychology, and Earth Science. Natalie expressed gratitude for the opportunity to “test the waters and solve problems” during her internship experience. This internship showed her that there is much more work to be done, and many more jobs involved in the field of clean energy than she had originally thought.
After Natalie finished the inventory project this past summer, she stayed on with the City to create a streamlined process for the inventory moving forward. She works for the Argonne National Laboratory as a solar-pollinator field ecology research consultant, where she monitors transects and conducts wildlife photo and bird call data analysis for pollinator habitats in solar energy facilities. All the while, she also works as a soil science and sustainable housing teaching assistant, stormwater solids research assistant, and entomology office assistant.
When sharing her insights for students and early-career professionals, Natalie stressed the importance of saying “yes” to opportunities. Anything can be a learning opportunity – or a chance to grow your network, she said. And, she added: “You are likely more qualified than you think.”
To find out more or apply for the Sustainability Corps program, visit https://environment.umn.edu/leadership/sustainability-corps/.
Molly Stroh is a junior studying Journalism and Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, and is the communications and editorial assistant for IonE.