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Interview with University of Maine senior Alia Parsons

Alia Parsons

ORONO, Maine -- The University of Maine Pulp and Paper Foundation was incorporated in 1952 by 12 UMaine graduates financially supporting and preparing well-educated engineering students for careers in the pulp and paper and allied industries.

The foundation is supported by annual gifts from more than 70 companies in 50 states, as well as individual gifts from more than 250 alumni and friends.

The Maine Pulp & Paper Foundation currently supports more than 100 engineering and forestry students with merit based scholarships and boasts having the most alumni in the paper industry.

Paperitalo Publications was able to catch up with senior Alia Parsons. We asked her a few questions about her experiences at UMaine.

What attracted you to Chemical Engineering and the UMaine PPF?

When I was a Junior in high school, I was taking an AP Chemistry course. My teacher knew I loved anything STEM related and that I was unsure of what I wanted to study in college. She handed me a pamphlet for UMaine PPF's summer camp called "Consider Engineering". I decided to attend, and at this camp I was introduced to what chemical engineering was and all the opportunities the degree offered. I knew I loved problem solving and wished to make a difference in the world, so engineering was a no-brainer for me. I decided on chemical engineering over other options because I loved chemistry and the range of types of jobs you can have with the degree. I knew it'd give me flexibility in the future to work in many different places, working on many different kinds of projects.

I was also introduced to the Pulp and Paper Foundation at UMaine at the camp and learned of all the resources available to us as students in the foundation. I thought it looking into joining the foundation was a good idea because they had access to opportunities that would be much harder to acquire on my own. I was blown away by the supportive atmosphere among the students and faculty at the camp and knew I wanted to be a part of the community while I was pursuing such a tough degree.

Were you looking into pulp and paper when you were in high school?

I was quite naive to the importance and relevance of the pulp and paper industry when I was in high school. I assumed it was a dying industry especially since I witnessed my hometown newspaper mill shut down when I was in elementary school. It wasn't until I heard of the foundation and got the opportunity to learn about how our lives are affected by the industry each and every day that I begin developing an appreciation for it. I now want to be a part of the industry to ensure its long-lasting importance and be a part of the impressive innovation that's allowed it to remain so relevant in such a technologically advancing world. My internship experience in the industry taught me that although it might not sound super exciting, working in a paper mill can be very rewarding and fun!

Tell us about the internships and/or co-ops you have had.

As a first-year summer intern I had the opportunity to work alongside a process engineer at Huhtamaki in Waterville, ME. This internship taught me the basics of working in industry and working at a manufacturing facility in particular. I spent a lot of my time learning about the importance of safety and how I can, as an individual, contribute to the overall safety culture of where I work. I was able to shadow a process engineer to see what an employed engineer does day to day, and I was even able to contribute to projects and trials when I had little technical knowledge. It was a great learning experience and a perfect first internship to see what my future career entails.

For a semester of both my sophomore and junior year I worked as a co-op at WestRock in West Point, VA. This experience allowed me to transfer what I've learned in the classroom to real life processes in a very large and complex paper making facility. At WestRock, I first worked in the environmental department where I was a recognized member of the environmental team learning about and upholding the environmental requirements the mill had to follow. I had a multitude of my own projects I was in charge of completing, and I was given significant responsibility regarding them. This co-op taught me appreciation for the complexity of how such a large facility operates, and I was able to scale up what I learned in my first internship and in school to make a difference for the company.

During my second co-op term, I worked in the paper department which is much more fast-paced and critical to the revenue-generating side of the facility. This experience taught me about the more stressful side of production, and I was given even more responsibility in this role. I had projects to work on throughout the term and was expected to present my findings to my supervisor on a regular basis. I was working on projects considering safety, quality, production, and more. I was treated like an entry process engineer and was given the same level of work to carry. Working in this role, I felt like a true engineer myself. I was able to see my effort produce impressive and significant findings that made the facility safer, more efficient, and even more profitable.

Overall, these intern/co-op experiences helped me realize my passion for being a part of this industry and also the confidence in myself that I'm able to make a valuable contribution to whatever company I work for. Additionally, these internships helped me form professional relationships with a multitude of people in different lines of work. Professional networking like that is invaluable when beginning a career especially in such a close-knit industry.

What does this program mean to you?

This program, to me, means unwavering support. The second I was accepted I knew if I ever needed counsel in decision-making or support in getting through this difficult major, all I had to do was ask. Throughout my time in the program, I've had access to tutors if needed, networking opportunities with young professionals in our industry, educational seminars about various topics of interest, a multitude of internship/co-op opportunities, resume/interview guidance, career planning guidance and more.

This program also means opportunity. I can confidently say if I wasn't a part of this program, I wouldn't have had the experiences I've had in industry and my resume would be far less impressive. This program set me up to have not only a job offer with a reputable company by graduation, but many offers with many different companies. I know by talking to folks in industry that being a part of the foundation will continue to benefit me during my career in many ways.

Where do you see yourself in five and 10 years, and what are your career aspirations?

I have an exciting opportunity to work at PCA's Filer City mill which I'm pursuing after graduation. I'm very excited to see where that leads me. I also just recently passed my Fundamentals of Engineering Exam, so I plan on pursuing my Professional Engineer's license. Other than that, I can't wait to see what the future holds!

What would you recommend to anyone who might be interested in getting into pulp and paper?

I would recommend looking at all the pulp and paper industry does to advance our daily lives. The pulp and paper industry is responsible for so many essential materials in our lives and because of that, there are so many different jobs within the industry. There is surely something for everyone and having an internship to discover the right fit for you can make all the difference. If you're able to, look into gaining internship experience, and if not reach out to those who are in the industry for their experiences. Industry professionals are very welcoming and want to teach those who are unaware how impressive the growing and evolving industry is. As I've heard many times from industry professionals, and experienced myself, it is a great time to look into joining the industry. There are so many new and exciting technological advances to work on, and there are so many opportunities for young engineers to learn from great experiences and do impressive work.

Please let us know of anything else of interest about your experiences in the program.

Being a part of this program has allowed me to financially support myself and has thus taken a load of stress not only off me but also my family. I know the career I'm set up for will be able to support my desires in life, and that is invaluable. On top of that, I know the relationships I've developed within this program will last a lifetime both in and outside of the industry. Overall, I couldn't be more grateful that the foundation saw potential in me as I was so naive to how it would change my life for the better.

Please tell us what year you are in the program, your hometown, and anything interesting you might do in your free time.

My name is Alia, and I'm a senior at the University of Maine studying Chemical Engineering with a Minor in Business Administration and a concentration in Pulp and Paper Management. I'm also currently pursuing my MBA at UMaine. My hometown is Bucksport, ME, but I went to high school at John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor. I spend most of my time being active whether that be hiking, running, weightlifting, or riding my horse. I also love to spend time with friends and family around some good food. Overall, I love staying busy learning new things whether that's trying a new recipe, reading a new book, or trying out a new class/experience.


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