Harrisburg University pushes students to gain real-world experience

Dyanna Zollo dreams about video games. The 26-year-old Harrisburg University of Science and Technology student recently sprung awake in the dead of night with an idea for a puzzle game bouncing around her head.

“I would love to make video games for a living,” said Zollo, who majors in Interactive Media. “It’s a growing industry, and they’re avidly searching for women in the industry. That’s part of what attracted me to the career in the first place.”

Zollo is on her way thanks to Harrisburg University’s Experiential Learning program. She’s completing an internship with Fun to 11, a Lebanon-area board game maker. The lessons she learns there about game theory, market research and play-testing could help her realize her goal of creating games instead of just beating them.

Unlike some schools, HU requires its students to complete an internship – as well as a research project – before graduation. The mandatory 135 hours in the field give students real-world credentials that show employers they’re ready to work after graduation.

The experience vastly improves the odds of students landing a job, said Kim Sprought, associate director of Experiential Programs and Professional Development at HU.

“Many of our students have turned their internships into employment opportunities, or they come out with a really good portfolio to showcase to employers when they’re interviewing. It’s been a great success for us,” she said.

The approach has earned HU national acclaim. The school ranks No. 3 in U.S. News short list of colleges with the highest internship rates and was the only college in the state to make the Top 10.

A preview of a post-graduation world

Sprought estimates she works with 75 to 100 students each semester as part of the Experiential Learning program.

Morgan Wagner is studying environmental science and renewable energy. The junior has been interning with Skelly and Loy, an engineering and environmental consulting firm, since January. She’s spent her time doing everything from data projects to identifying macro invertebrates that can shed light on the health of streams.

An outdoor enthusiast who fell in love with the wilderness while growing up, Wagner is especially excited that spring will have her working outside. Skelly and Loy has plans to test whether predacious dragonfly larvae can help reduce the mosquito population if introduced to the same temporary pools of water as the pests’ larvae.

“I’m more of a field-work person, so I’m excited for the hands-on experiences,” Wagner said, who has goals to work in the water treatment and water sanitation field.

Wagner also knows the internship is building her communication and teamwork abilities – soft skills that employers want. It’s also a preview of what the post-graduation world will look like.

“It sets the bar for the standards for this field and the kind of work that is expected of an employee,” Wagner said.

Not your stereotypical internships

Students can pursue their own internships as long as they align with their academic majors, Sprought said. The university also will place students in fitting internships.

“We want to make sure our students are getting good, real-world, hands-on experience in their majors,” Sprought said. “We shy away from internships that have them going for coffee and making copies.”

Students often prove more ambitious than that.

Studying Interactive Media, Aaron Litten first approached Greenfish Labs after his sophomore year, hoping to land an internship with the company that produces virtual reality content. He needed a little more seasoning, but he got his own camera and immersed himself in video production.

The work paid off during the fall semester of his junior year when Litten landed in a video production class taught by the president of Greenfish Labs. He made an impression, and it led to a spring internship that has Litten working on regular and virtual reality video.

Litten is currently working on an equipment checkout system and investigating how Greenfish Labs could live-stream an event without a power outlet available. He’s also especially proud of some of his work on 3-D video that also uses some 2-D footage for a client.

The experience, Litten said, gives HU students an advantage over other job seekers.

“It’s not just learning from an employee’s perspective, but from a manager’s, too, and understanding how corporations and fairly new businesses should be run,” he said.

All three students are soaking up all they can during their internships.

Zollo may one day design the next video game everyone downloads to their iPhone. For now, she’s absorbing all her professional counterparts have to offer.

“They’re mentors. I learn so much just by listening to them and talking to them,” Zollo said. “They give me great feedback about how I can improve myself working through my career. It’s been a great time.”

Accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, Harrisburg University is a private non-profit university offering bachelor and graduate degree programs in science, technology, and math fields to a diverse student body. For more information on the University’s affordable demand-driven undergraduate and graduate programs, call 717.901.5146 or email, Connect@HarrisburgU.edu