By Shawn Henderson
After several attempts at college, including the part-time approach, I decided in the mid 2000’s to start taking full-time classes and finish up my degree. I knew that I wanted computers to be my major, because I love technology, but I also had a strong affinity for geo-sciences. Not knowing much about geographic information systems (GIS) at the time, it seemed to be the perfect mix of geography, geology, and computers and therefore tailored specifically to my interests. I thought GIS was just going to be about map making, but I had a lot to learn. I was in the first pure GIS class that my alma mater, Park University offered. At the time there was no dedicated computer lab, and the text book was less than helpful, but it was interesting. I remember that in the computer lab on the main floor of the science building there were only five computers with ArcGIS licenses; we had to fight other students who were working on reports in MS Word to get access to the software we needed. Park’s Professor David Fox did the best with what resources were at his disposal, and he made the class really interesting and enjoyable. I developed a good relationship with Dave. One afternoon I was frustrated and fed up with the turn-over of professors in the Computer Science program back then, so I asked him if he would be my unofficial advisor. He agreed. From then on, we were good.
One afternoon I had enough of my computer programming class and decided to go for a stroll to clear my mind. I had been working on a user interface class but, the buttons and layout were not lining up. I wanted to throw the computer across the room. I walked over by the library and found an advertisement for an EPA summer intern program. At this point I had applied for a dozen internships and I chuckled to myself that I had absolutely no chance, but I also figured that I had nothing to lose. It just so happened that I had a certification in MS Access, and a group at EPA was looking for an intern to develop a tracking database in Access. I applied, the stars aligned, and I was accepted for the internship.
I quickly finished the tracking database, and I was able to detail into the Region’s GIS group and onto our Aqua Team with fellow colleagues like Roberta Vogel-Leutung and Laura Webb. I transitioned into the Student Career Employment Program and was offered a full time position with the Agency after I graduated. Sometime after that, my supervisor and I were brainstorming about GIS and we wondered if we could leverage my knowledge of Park’s program (which requires an internship) to offer their students a more robust GIS experience at EPA. I approached Dave Fox with the idea, and he thought it was a fantastic approach. Thus was born our GIS VIP (VOLUNTARY INTERNSHIP with PARK). From there our program has blossomed with more than 15 students working on EPA GIS projects.
The experience of working with these students has been amazing! There has been a variety of unique personalities come through the door. I have had students that were worried and timid at the beginning, but by the end they were confidant and ready to save the world with GIS. I’ve also had students come through to find out how much database/computer work is involved and realize that the real world experience of GIS isn’t something they want to head towards as a career goal. In the end, not all the projects end up like we planned, but the experience the students and EPA staff get from these projects is invaluable. Students have had the opportunity to work with EPA staff which provides them with professional experience and contacts. In return the Agency gets a fresh look on things with young enthusiastic students and volunteer assistance on projects of substance.
Besides our work with Park, the Agency has several other voluntary opportunities. Currently EPA Region 7’s Office of Public Affairs, is seeking a volunteer intern to work on social media coordination who is motivated, hard-working, and interested in helping the EPA protect human health and the environment. You can find out all the details here. Additionally our Superfund program is seeking two volunteer interns to work on separate projects found here and here. These are great opportunities to build skills and your resume. Heck my old boss Jeffery Robichaud, also a fellow blogger, did his own volunteer internship with EPA in Philadelphia 20 years ago.
Shawn Henderson is an Environmental Protection Specialist with the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Branch of the Environmental Services Division. He is a part of the Aqua Team, and conducts water quality sampling around the Region’s four states. He has a Computer Science degree from Park University and helped to develop the Region’s KCWaterBug app and kcwaters.org.