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Student Spotlight: CJ Conroy of Western Michigan

CJ Conroy

KALAMAZOO, Michigan -- The Western Michigan University Paper Technology Foundation is a 501(c)(3) corporation founded by industry leaders in 1958.

The mission of the corporation has been and continues to be to support the Department of Chemical and Paper Engineering at Western Michigan University. The Paper Technology Foundation's primary roles have been to recruit students for the paper and allied industries and support those students with competitive scholarships. In the last 10 years, the foundation has awarded more than $2 million in scholarships.

Paperitalo Publications was able to catch up with CJ Conroy, a senior in the program. We asked him a few questions about his experiences at Western Michigan.

What attracted you to the Paper Science and Engineering program?

The summer before I started school at Western Michigan University, I was undecided in the engineering field. I knew I liked math and science and wanted to pursue a career in engineering but didn't necessarily have a focus in mind. I toured the engineering campus at WMU that summer and was approached by a recruiter from the paper program and they explain to me what paper engineering was and all the opportunities. After touring the pilot plant that I would later work at, and hearing about all the amazing opportunities within the field I was sold. I have been hooked ever since, through job exposure, and the dedicated staff at WMU that make paper engineering one of the most engaging and rewarding majors offered at Western.

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

Like I mentioned before, I had no prior knowledge of this field growing up. In high school I was taking all the high-level math and science course I could because I knew I wanted to study some sort of engineering. I enjoyed a mix of everything when it came to the big engineering fields so when I was introduced to paper, which has elements of all of them I was instantly sold.

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

My first summer job while in college was at the very pilot plant that got me interested in paper engineering that summer before I started at Western. I was a great way for me to get my foot in the door and learn some of the basics as well as network with companies that would come and use our machines. My love for the field only grew more when the following summer I accepted an offer with WestRock and worked with my first large scale paper machine. This was a big eye opener on what the industry was like and how big paper really was. Seeing the machines and watching giant reels come off it for the first time was mind blowing. So, from there I started learning as much as I could, beginning with stock prep and tracking as many pipes as I could and learning the process from pulper to machine chest. It was a wonderful experience and taught me what it's like working as a process engineer and managing a few small projects around the mill to increase efficiency or update old systems or even revamping some safety protocols to make sure no one is getting hurt. This summer I have an internship in Mississippi that I am very excited for and I will be working as a technical chemical salesman. I can't wait to see what my future holds and the endless opportunities I have in this field.

What does this program mean to you?

This program means everything to me. Without this program I do not think I would be able to attend college. The amazing support provided by the PTF allows me to attend college and have not only financial support but also amazing mentoring and academic support through my fellow peers. This program also allows me to work directly in the industry every summer to further my early career development. Being able to work at internships is an amazing opportunity that allows me to provide services and work on projects for a company as well as me getting firsthand experience that I will be able to use after graduating college. This program gives me clear goals for me to work towards and achieve. Learning and applying the knowledge on site each summer is what keeps me driven and wanting to learn more every year.

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

My five-to-ten-year goals are to find a company that is conducive to me and I can see a future with. My long-term goals include entering a management/leadership role. I enjoy working with teams and accomplishing projects that improve processes. I also believe it is very important to maintaining a healthy work-life balance that ensures you are providing your best work without getting burnt out and causing issues at home. When I enter a management role, I also want to pass down that same mentality with all those I work with.

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

You never know until you try it. The hardest things in life tend to be the starting of something rather than doing said thing. If you have a math and science-oriented mind and are thinking of something within the engineering field, giving paper engineering a chance may surprise you. It is such a broad and misunderstood industry that many people have no idea what it is. Whenever I tell someone new that I'm studying paper engineering that always gives me a weird look and mention something about "Paper Airplanes", to which I have to give a laugh and explain to them how many paper products they use on a daily basis without realizing it. Just opening someone's eyes to how many paper products are used everyday can sometimes be enough to pique their interest.

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

One of my favorite things about the programs is the people you meet and everyone that is there to support you. Not only are the faculty at Western amazing people who inspire everyday in class, but also all the industry leaders that take the time out of their schedules just to talk to you and let you pick their brains. I cannot think of any other industry that is similar to that. Being able to talk to someone about how they started their careers and where they think they made mistakes or learned valuable lessons is something you can't put a price tag on. Here at Western we call it a "Paper Family" for a reason.

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

I am currently in my fourth year with an expectation of one more year before graduation. I am in no rush and understand it is a journey and one that I am enjoying very much. I was born and raised in Jackson Michigan. Some of my favorite things to do in my free time include playing games with friends or just hanging out. I like to think of myself as the funny guy, but I'll let my friends answer that one. I enjoy listening to music and singing in the shower. If you're not enjoying your life, who will?


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