Roanoke College “IT” keeps on sharpening student minds
By Jonathan Cribb
There are history majors and English majors. Computer science majors, too. Some want to go the Valley someday, Silicon Valley that is. Some want to stay right here in the Roanoke Valley.
Mostly, they want to expand their minds, do something important over the summer, and get paid for it. They want to feel respected. They want to help Roanoke College be better day after day.
Where does a collection of college students find all that? A group willing to give up any semblance of summer vacation and get to work a week after graduation?
Right here in Salem, right there on campus. They are the summer IT team, and make no mistake, it’s not a vacation for these young women and men.
While the campus gets beautified on the outside, inside the walls and doors and into the core of the computer and communications networks, these summer employees dig deep to make sure the systems run as well as they can. It’s like a private business would be, only these employees are still in school, contributing to the school.
The Roanoke College staff director of the program says those contributions are just plain “priceless.”
“This isn’t like a normal IT shop where we can come in when business is closed,” Terri Austin said, “because the campus is never really closed.”
It’s a beehive without the bees. All the IT systems need maintenance, and they need updating. Quirks that couldn’t be handled during the school year get attention now. They get smoothed out. There is always trouble-shooting needed.
IT systems have to work together. There’s really nothing too small, and students are in a position to do it all.
“It makes it so much nicer when you feel like you’re valued member of the team,” said Chloe Welch, a senior at Roanoke College and part of IT’s Media Technology staff.
She said she’s learning not just about IT but also about thinking. Thinking quickly, pointedly and with purpose.
“Because you are never quite sure what situation what kind of situation you will be getting into,” Welch said, “and what types of problems you are going to be dealing with. For instance, you could get a problem one day that is identical to the last, but the solution could be completely different.”
That self-initiative developed in this jobs program drives the student employees. They enjoy and thrive in the work environment.
Josh Storos, a junior at the college and the lead student programmer in IT, described it as just “a different atmosphere.”
And this sort of atmosphere, analysis and experience is what employers value, whether a job is in IT, programming, or outside the field, in sales or manufacturing. There is also another crucial element involved in this special summer job program at Roanoke College, something extraordinarily valued by the companies and other organizations looking to hire. It’s called trust.
“Computers contain people’s lives,” Michael Kohlhaas said. Kohlhaas is a junior at Roanoke College and a technician in the IT department. “It is important we don’t delete something important or mess up their computer.”
Bottom line, the tasks in IT have to be done right.
These students are being asked to work on some of the college’s most sensitive systems, the ones that have to work 24-7, the ones that form the backbone for data. So much is about data – and data privacy – these days. And the crucibles of learning now are tied to technology.
Barry Nichols, the network engineer for the college’s IT staff said, “If our trust is lost within the Roanoke College community, we can’t do our jobs well anymore.”
This summer, some members of the IT swat team have another assignment a bit more interesting then others. They’re not working on the bowels of a laptop or a server or a problem getting technology equipment to work. They’re helping to give the college website a so-called “reskinning,” better known to the outside world as a facelift.
The website, of course, reflects who the college is and aims to be, and these select students are getting the chance to put their fingerprints on things. Under the watchful guidance, that is, of a very attentive staff. Full-time staff who aren’t just there to put out fires and put in new software. They are there to help their team learn. It’s teaching, too.
“We always tell them, you’re gonna get out of this job what you put into this job,” Nichols said during a staff meeting. In turn, the staff has to put in great effort, as well. Side by side, students and staff feed off each other.
Among the close-knit students, there are lots of smiles, and a quiet confidence that comes from shared purpose, from leaning on each other.
Student Samantha Parsons said, “One of the things I realized after I got this job was how bad my last job was.”
She said she’s an incredible boss within IT at Roanoke College.
“The affirmation” is wonderful, “ she said, “and he wants me to be involved. I think it is a very good cycle. You come into the job people already love, and it’s infectious.”
Jason Karaffa is a junior and a veteran of the Coast Guard. “I don’t feel like there is a big separation between the full-time staff members and the student workers,” he said. “It is pretty cohesive. It’s a good time working here.”
As much as some students hone in on very specific knowledge circles, Karaffa’s focus is actually broad-based.
“The networking skills,” he said, “ and how the networks are linked together. I am working right now to get another certification to expand my knowledge on how that works.”
Student Michael Kohlhaas says what he enjoys learning most is “definitely the intuition skills. You walk into an office and within five to 10 minutes of them explaining a problem you kind of know the solution. I think that’s a skill that not a lot of people have.”
The summer IT jobs are hard to get. The men and woman in them feel a little like elite paratroopers coming in. But they are humbled quickly, because the variety of demands is great, and the timetables often very tight. Everyone, including faculty members, wants his or her problems ironed out fast.
Not only is offering these positions to the right students important, but so is fine-tuned training before they get into the serious work. But once they are up and running, the ambition is to be a well-oiled machine.
Beckie Muolo works in IT customer service. “Good communication,” she said, “who is going to what appointment – good flow – is all important to have a successful day.”
Josh Storos is convinced his career prospects have been elevated by being part of the summer squad.
“Especially,” he said, “since (in) programming, whether its web applications or software development, employers love programmers with experience. Most employers require it. Just being able to get experience here working 40 hour work weeks with a web development team developing applications give me an edge over those who haven’t.”
In this program, students learn to communicate well, to be adaptable, to build patience, and develop the drive to treat every job at hand as a step in their career. Whether in computers, data applications, high technology…or English or history.
“Priceless,” said the UT director Terri Austin. That’s the kind of program she wants to run, too: an intense but amicable summer of professional exposure to real-world IT problems.
Over on campus these days, she’s got just the group of motivated students to make the grade.