Gulf Power summer interns Emily Farrar and James Grafe got to work with a Southern Company drone pilot on project to use shoot aerial photos of the Naval Air Station Whiting Field Holley Solar Field.

Summer is in full swing and that means many college students are faced with deciding how to spend their time –– studying abroad, working on a professor’s research project or interning.

Many career experts agree that all the above are beneficial, but two Gulf Power summer interns have discovered an internship can pave the way to fulfilling academic and career wish lists.

Mississippi State University graduate Emily Farrar says her summer internships at Gulf Power’s Environmental Affairs Department, in 2016 and this year, have helped her get into University of California, Berkeley’s master’s degree program –– the graduate program of her dreams.

James Grafe, on his second internship at Gulf Power this summer, changed his major from mechanical engineer to civil/environmental engineering after an internship at another utility company in Mississippi introduced him to the world of environmental compliance

Real-world skills

Farrar applied for a Gulf Power internship after she toured Berkeley for a graduate school visit a few years ago. “An academic advisor told me that a lot of students who want to go to graduate school will try and get research projects for the summer,” she said. “The advisor said they end up seeing too many students with the same backgrounds applying, and they prefer students who have internships or real-world experience.”

Farrar, of Pass Christian, Mississippi, graduated from Mississippi State in the spring with a civil engineering degree and concentration on environmental studies. She selected UC Berkeley for its Energy, Civil Infrastructure and Climate program, which basically focuses on how to maximize energy efficiency and develop infrastructure to minimize impact to the environment and create resiliency to extreme weather events.

To up her odds of getting into the program, she applied for an internship through a campus recruiter from Gulf Power’s parent company, Southern Company. She wanted to work for Gulf Power because of its strong Environmental Stewardship focus that fit with her area of study. Farrar was thrilled when the recruiter offered her the job because of her water sampling and environmental studies experience in college.

That previous water sampling experience called for standing on the banks of a stream and lowering equipment into the water. At Gulf Power, she quickly learned to embrace stepping out of her comfort zone and stretching herself.

“When I first read the job description, I thought I’d be on a boat swimming in nice, clear water all day,” she said of the requirement to snorkel to deploy and retrieve water quality, sampling equipment. “I remember the first day last year going out testing water in Escambia River. I had to learn to be OK being in the murky river water and diving down with my hands in front of me to feel around for test equipment, and not seeing anything a foot away from my face.”

Navigating the corporate office Environmental Affairs department proved less challenging but was equally rewarding with its interdisciplinary experience. “The team likes to expose you to all the different things they do –– the air and the water quality sides.”

Grafe, of Kiln, Mississippi, who gradates in December, said the Gulf Power internship has definitely helped him solidify his interest in environmental compliance work. “And my interest in working for Southern Company and Gulf Power,” said Grafe. “The field work is my favorite part, and I hope to land a job that has a field component to it. The variety of backgrounds found in the department is something I hope to find in a future workplace.”

Overall, he said, the most interesting part is the outdoor water sampling, even in the murky river water. “Spending time on a boat in Pensacola, Florida sounded like everyone’s dream internship, and it has definitely turned out to be exactly that,” he said.

Valued assets

Taking a break to enjoy the water, the pair snorked to collect samples, not just in clear water but also in murky water, was among the diverse activities interns Emily Farrar and James Grafe are doing during their internship at Gulf Power this summer

Greg Terry, Gulf Power Air Quality Programs supervisor who manages interns, said internships do improve students’ performance. “Sometimes the classwork may not seem interesting or relevant, but after working a summer, they perform well in the classroom because they now see more relevance, and they really see the benefit of earning a degree,” said Terry, who started his career at Gulf Power in the cooperative student program, another type of intern program the company offers to further groom students for a job

Michael Armstrong, Southern Company’s Campus Recruiter team leader, said at any given time there are about 350 co-ops and interns working throughout Southern Company.  Gulf Power has 14. Landing those jobs are highly competitive.

“The main focus of the program is to create a pipeline of future employees,” he said. “We try to be selective from the 1,500 applications we receive each semester. We interview about 400 of those students on campus and hire about 75 interns.”

Terry stressed that interns provide Gulf Power incredible value and results for the air and water quality teams. “We would need to hire contractors to replace the interns if they were not available,” he said. “We see value in having interns with their fresh point of views to work on the same projects as our engineers. During the summer with our ‘intern power,’ we are able to accomplish a lot of important projects.”

Farrar said the real-world experience working alongside engineers is polishing her academic and professional skills, and giving her a clearer picture about her career path. “It has helped me with school studies –– to be more professional as a person and organized,” she said.

In the graduate program she’s entering, she’ll be analyzing problems in civil engineering from an academic, management and economic perspective, she said. “This internship has given me a much broader understanding of how energy companies operate, and just the opportunity to work in the corporate world makes me feel more prepared to make the most of my education.”