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Dell student assistants learn sustainability hands-on

November 22, 2013

When you work in a field like sustainability, it’s not just what you know, it’s what you do that matters. That’s why Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability encourages all of its undergraduates to gain as much experience as possible – including at least one internship – during their course of study.

These students are learning new skills, applying classroom knowledge, and assuming professional responsibilities and substantive tasks. Hands-on experience is a key differentiator for sustainability graduates entering the job market.

One hands-on learning opportunity takes advantage of a unique relationship between Dell and the School of Sustainability. Students get to join Dell’s sustainability team as hourly student workers.

Students work from a shared office space in Wrigley Hall. There, they are coached and mentored by Bruno Sarda, director of global sustainability operations at Dell, and adjunct faculty at the school.

Sarda explains that the value of the program is in the nature of the work. Student sustainability assistants complete ongoing projects, collaborate with other Dell employees and juggle priorities in an intense, corporate sustainability environment. Future employers find that really valuable.

According to Sarda, students learn to be nimble and agile. They apply what they know, and they learn that productivity and initiative matter. “Students coming out of this program gain experience and skills that are highly marketable,” Sarda says.

That ability to market oneself paid off for Jaleila “Jill” Brumand. Brumand (class of 2013) is a Fulbright recipient, and her applied work with Dell helped strengthen her Fulbright application. “Jill was my point person on anything related to carbon,” says Sarda. At Dell, Brumand examined the emissions created through the company’s supply chain, employee commute and other sources.

“Different organizations want reports from Dell to understand their environmental targets and policies, and that was my everyday task,” says Brumand. “But I also had pet projects, like the annual carbon disclosure report for Dell. Through that task, I became familiar with the Carbon Disclosure Project in the UK and gained a greater understanding of multi-national scale emissions projects,” a familiarity that contributed heavily to the success of her Fulbright application.

Sustainability alumnus Kevin Zeck (class of 2013) has a similar story. He’s now a sustainability analyst for IO. Sarda says, “Kevin competed with dozens of candidates for that job. Many had experience, but Kevin had already done the kind of work they were looking for.”

Since the program’s inception two and a half years ago, more than 15 individuals have participated in the Dell program. The jobs, while not tied to semesters, have ranged in duration from one semester up to 18 months. Four to six students at any given time may be employed as sustainability assistants, and there are typically one to two openings each semester. Because salaries are paid by ASU and the students work on campus, international students are also eligible to participate.

Student sustainability assistants may get to interact with supply chain management teams in China, business teams in Latin America, employees from within Dell and people outside Dell, as well. “They do it well,” says Sarda. “These students are amazingly capable.”

“Bruno throws you in and supports you,” says Brumand. “It was a great experience for me.”