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Connecting in New York

By Lara Palmquist '13
October 26, 2012

Robert Thrash '94, the director of trading at Barclays Capital, shares his career experience with students on the Connections Program trip to New York. Dean Maki '87 (seated in blue suit), the chief U.S. economist at Barclays, and Mark Hanson '89, the company's managing director of investments, also spoke with students. See more photos in Facebook.

During this year's fall break, 25 St. Olaf College students traveled to New York to meet with alumni working at organizations such as Good Morning America, the New York Times, and Goldman Sachs.

It was all part of the St. Olaf Connections Program, which provides students with the opportunity to conduct extensive career exploration with alumni in cities around the country.

"The program provides students with the opportunity to recognize the valuable resource of the alumni network," says trip leader Kris Estenson. "Many of them leave the program with pride in the careers that Oles are capable of launching, thereby encouraging them to dream big."

Supported by the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, the Connections Program began in 2011 with a spring break venture to Washington, D.C. This year, in addition to the trip to the nation's capital, the program has expanded to include a fall break trip to New York and a Interim break trip to Houston.

The New York trip gave students the opportunity to directly engage with alumni in the fields of art, business, performance, and communications.

Ben Baker '09 (right), a pianist and adjunct music instructor at New York University, listens to Katie Curran explain her role as director of operations at Manhattan Concert Productions, a company founded by Craig Arnold '76. See more photos in Facebook.

An itinerary of exploration
Led by Estenson and Sandy Malecha '01, associate directors of the Piper Center, the students enjoyed an itinerary that combined career exploration with a taste of life in New York City. 

For the first two days the students traveled as a group, touring the Museum of Modern Art under the guidance of Maren Lankford '09 and visiting the World Trade Center Memorial and Tribute Museum with Brenda Berkman '73, one of the first female firefighters in New York City.

The students then followed different itineraries, allowing them to meet with alumni who share their particular vocational interests. Those interested in communications, journalism, and media, for example, met with Good Morning America senior producer Cat McKenzie '92 and Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times business journalist Gretchen Morgenson '76.

Students interested in performance met with American Ballet Theater principal conductor Charles Barker '75 and sat in on a rehearsal. Then they ventured to Manhattan Concert Productions — a company founded by Craig Arnold '76 — to hear about the experiences of freelance actor David Rysdahl '09 and jazz pianist Ben Baker '09, who is also an adjunct music instructor at New York University.

"It was especially exciting to meet recent grads who were already finding success after only being in the city for a couple of years," says Connections Program participant Kari Nelson '13. "They were great examples that it doesn't matter where you are from as long as you work hard and have a true passion for what you do."

Twenty-five St. Olaf students interested in a variety of careers traveled to New York City over fall break as part of the Connections Program. See more photos in Facebook.

Students interested in business and finance took full advantage of their time in the city as well, meeting with a team of alumni working at Barclays Capital: Dean Maki '87, the company's chief U.S. economist; Robert Thrash '94, its director of trading; and Mark Hanson '89, its managing director of investments. They also met with Cuitlahuac Turrent '97, an executive at Goldman Sachs, and Merle Yoder, a St. Olaf parent who works at Standard and Poor's.

"We met alumni in a variety of settings, from a conference room of Barclays overlooking Manhattan to a more intimate lunch on Wall Street," says economics major Kathryn Geskermann '13. "This change of scenery allowed us to become comfortable with networking and asking the questions that will help us to investigate future careers."

The art students had a similar opportunity to hear advice from alumni in the field, meeting with cartoonist and freelance artist Ward Sutton '89; musician, artist, and gallery owner Kristen Copham '92; and Berkman, who's also a lithographic artist.

"Meeting alumni in the 'real world' was a totally different experience than meeting them on campus or connecting via email," says Katie Busch '13. "While visiting cartoonist Ward Sutton in his at-home studio, he showed us how his work has progressed from drawing cartoons for the St. Olaf Manitou Messenger to today creating cartoons for the New Yorker."

All of the students on the program concluded their trip with an alumni reception and breakfast together at Amy's Bread, a nationally recognized bakery with three retail cafes in New York owned by Amy Scherber '82.

Students on the St. Olaf Connections Program trip to New York sample the work of Amy Scherber '82, who founded a nationally recognized bakery with three retail cafes. See more photos in Facebook.

A two-part program
Upon their return to campus, the Connections Program participants will further explore their future career paths through a group seminar and a series of one-on-one meetings with Piper Center staff. The students will receive assistance in finding internship opportunities, preparing resumes, networking, and writing cover letters.

But more importantly, Piper Center staff will help them continue their conversations with alumni and develop mentoring relationships.

"Establishing these relationships now helps students make a smooth transition after graduation," says Piper Center Director Branden Grimmett '03.

This two-part process of the Connections Program ensures that students find confidence in their vocational interests as well as direction for the next steps they should take. 

"Through the program I have a better idea of the opportunities that are out there and the general path to take that will lead me where I want to go," says Nelson. "My goal as I look to the future is to pursue my passions, something that this trip helped me see as an actual possibility."

A look ahead
The new Connections Program trip to Houston in January will focus on energy, mathematics, and aerospace, and the one to Washington, D.C., in March will focus on political science, law, international relations, and education. 

Estenson hopes the program will continue to grow in the future, and plans are already under way to extend it to Chicago, Denver, and San Francisco.

As for the participants on this year’s inaugural trip to New York City, they hope the location becomes a lasting tradition within the Connections Program.

"I am so thankful I got to be a part of this amazing trip, and I hope this opportunity continues to be provided in the future," says Gabby Coll '14. "It's a great way to keep up the strong network of Oles all over the world."

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or