Experiential Learning

Internship at Google

I decided to pursue an Individualized Major in Information Systems and Analytics because I wanted to combine coursework ranging from Analytics to Quantitative Economics. My Individualized Major has been critical in the development of my technical and quantitative skill sets. I knew that by creating my major I would stand out versus other job candidates because of the unique development and application of my coursework with my job experiences.

Danny at work

This past summer (2021) I was a gTech gCare BOLD Intern at Google. The BOLD Internship Program focuses on building opportunities for leadership and development. The team I worked with this summer functioned within the gTech organization, where I worked with colleagues to troubleshoot technical issues affecting Google Ads accounts. I also worked with a team of interns to develop a Python Colab notebook that analyzed operations and performance data. This experience helped to create a community with my cohort; every day was met with a new challenge that required innovative problem solving to offer timely solutions for Google Ads clients all across the world.

With the conclusion of my internship, I am excited to be returning full-time to Google next year as a Solutions Consultant! It was an amazing summer, and I would not have had the opportunity without my Individualized Major in Information Systems and Analytics.

By Danny Lesh (’21)
IMJR: Information Systems and Analytics

End of Life Care in Belgium

This past January, I traveled to Ghent, Belgium for a two-week interdisciplinary program on palliative and end of life care. This program was hosted by Artevelde University College Ghent and organized by the COHERE Academy, a non-profit organization dedicated to collaboration in higher education to promote innovation, education, and best practices in the fields of health, social care, and rehabilitation.

Simone in Brussels

This interdisciplinary program consisted of students from seven European universities and the UConn School of Nursing. Students came from a wide range of disciplines, including nursing, speech pathology, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. The program sought to educate students on the nuances of end of life and palliative care through active discussions about our respective countries’ healthcare policies and social climates surrounding end of life care, site visits and volunteering with patients, and presentations from experts in the many fields relevant to a patient’s medical experience at the end of life. During the program we also discussed many of the philosophical aspects of end of life care. One of the most powerful experiences of this program was listening to a panel of healthcare professionals debate the implications of euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium. This experience prompted me to further explore the philosophical arguments for and against the legalization of physician assisted suicide in the United States by writing a paper about it for Public Health and Policy in an Aging Society (PUBH 5475) this past Spring semester.

As an individualized major in Healthcare and Aging, my major encompasses a wide range of courses on aging, healthcare systems and policy, social determinants of health, and healthcare justice. I originally worried that my field of study was too niche and I wouldn’t be able to find an international program that met my interest in the intersection of healthcare and public policy. However, after hearing about a friend in the School of Nursing’s experience in Belgium, I knew that this program would be a great fit. I worked with the Education Abroad office to connect with the School of Nursing, and was accepted to participate in this program despite not being a nursing major. I encourage everyone considering an individualized major to seek out opportunities that may seem unconventional or are in a different department or school.

Although I had learned about international healthcare systems and policies in my courses, I was able to experience another country’s healthcare system and approaches to end of life care firsthand. I greatly appreciated the experience of discussing such an important topic with students from different backgrounds. Upon returning to the United States, this experience fostered my critical examination of the U.S. healthcare system in comparison to that of Belgium, both in my course work and later in each country’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. This experience emphasized the variety of approaches for handling medical issues between different countries and cultures. I left Belgium with a more global perspective on healthcare, and a strong desire to improve healthcare policy here in the U.S. Most importantly however, I relish the friendships I formed with my peers and the desire to pursue some form of postgraduate education abroad that came from this experience.

By Simone Fournier
IMJR: Healthcare and Aging

Esports Marketing

Entering UConn as a French Major, something felt…off…so I immediately began conversing with advisors in the IMJR Program to go over options. I took class upon class to figure out my niche, and it was only in the last year of my education that I found what I needed to study – and it wasn’t in the University catalog. “Social Branding and Visual Media”, the major that I designed, explores digital marketing and branding techniques to enact social change. This could seem a bit flowery and without real-world application, but I would challenge that it’s the exact opposite. With a focus on effective and realistic application and a backbone in research and real-world context, the major’s design opened doors for me that I would otherwise have not even known existed.

In March 2019, I was a granted a remote position as the Head Post-Producer and Cultural Liaison for the largest all-female esports organization in Canada: “Team Sailor Scouts.” The organization is well-known in the Québec Esports community for its aptitude, inclusion, and level of professionalism. It caters to fans of all class and creed, but mainly to the noted minority in the world of competitive video games: women. Although young women make up 66% of the casual gaming industry, fewer than 2% of signed professional players are women. Additionally, women face abuse on a day-to-day basis within their respective games, the majority reporting having encountered racist, sexist, and homophobic comments regularly.

Emily at the 18th annual LAN ETS, capturing footage for Team Sailor Scouts.

For Team Sailor Scouts, I have created digital assets for our social media pages, advocated for further positive inclusion of women in gaming spaces and the ever-growing industry of esports. We have worked with organizations such as Ubisoft, RDS, Esports Central, Oshko Computers, and the Québec Breast Cancer Foundation to raise awareness and funds for the cause. We have given lectures at schools all over Canada, speaking to both male and female students about erasing stigmas against video games and presenting them as a viable career path regardless of gender. At the moment, I am using intercultural communication skills learned throughout the course of my time in the IMJR program to bring Team Sailor Scouts’ message to the United States, where we hope to expand our presence. Creating digital materials, using methods from my coursework, and framing them in a way that could best reach our audience to create change, we’ve successfully increased our voice and honed it to be loud, clear, and perfectly pitched.

I could not have asked for a better opportunity to have presented itself; finding work that matches not only my two majors, but also one of my favorite hobbies and my personal values, is a very rare opportunity. The one most important piece of advice I can give anyone seeking to enroll in the Individualized Major Program (or even beyond) is to follow your passions, because, at the end of the day, if what you’re doing doesn’t make you happy, then why do it?

By Emily Côté
IMJR: Social Branding and Visual Media

Food, Sustainability, and Study in Italy

I graduated in May 2019 from the University of Connecticut with a B.A. in “Food, Culture, & Sustainable Society” (individualized) and Human Rights. My individualized major focused on the relationships people have with food, and how to use that knowledge to make our food system more sustainable. My courses were drawn primarily from the departments of sociology, geography, and anthropology.

Although UConn has many courses with which I could build a strong academic program, I wanted to expand the scope of my studies beyond the United States. I looked into semester-long study abroad, and quickly found that Italy could be the perfect destination. UConn Education Abroad offered programs to Florence and Perugia, both of which had food-related coursework. After meeting with Valerie Nightingale, a study abroad advisor, I soon realized The Umbra Institute in Perugia would be the best fit. The Food and Sustainability Studies Program (FSSP) is specifically oriented the topics of my individualized major, and includes immersive class field trips and community engagement courses. I was also drawn by the city of Perugia itself, where I would be able to immerse myself linguistically and meet other university students.

While in Perugia, I took Italian, Water Essentials, The History and Culture of Food in Italy, Sustainability and Food Production in Italy, and Anthropology of Food. Although I did know some Italian (and a lot of Spanish) before visiting, the mandatory Italian course helped me gain more confidence speaking independently. Water Essentials was a multidisciplinary course focused on the intersections of water with society, the environment, gender, and politics. The remaining courses I took were directly part of the Food and Sustainability Studies certificate program. The History and Culture of Italy focused on taste, “Italian-ness”, and what Americans know to be “Italian”. Our history course also included a variety of field trips to places like Florence, Parma and Modena. These field trips gave us unique opportunities to see one of the oldest pharmacies in Florence, some of the first cookbooks in Italy, production of prosciutto, parmesan cheese, and balsamic vinegar. Sustainability and Food Production in Italy is a community engagement course which allowed us to gain experience volunteering at two different urban gardens. One of these gardens was a mental health residency which practiced horticultural therapy. Anthropology of Food centered around a mini-ethnography project in Perugia where we dined at local restaurants while making observations about their presentations of local and traditional menus. After this course, I co-authored an academic paper with Dr. Elisa Ascione, and a couple other students in the program, which is currently under review. The manuscript we submitted is titled, “Nostalgia on the Menu: Study Abroad Students Exploring the Past in Italian Restaurants”. It is a collection of writing based on ethnographic observations of five Perugian restaurants. The goal was to describe what “local” and “traditional” means to these establishments through an analysis of their decor, menus, websites, and interviews.

In my opinion, the FSSP is one of the strongest parts of The Umbra Institute. Through that program, I gained connections to accomplished faculty, experience volunteering at food-related non profit organizations, and was able to visit many parts of Italy. I also made great friends, as the Fall section of the program was quite small. One of my friends even traveled with me to take the GRE in Rome! My experience as a study abroad student made me a competitive candidate for graduate school, among many other opportunities, and continues to inform my academic career now.

By Abby Katz
IMJR: Food, Culture, and Sustainable Society

Adventures in Wollongong

This past Spring, as a second semester junior at the University of Connecticut, I studied abroad at the University of Wollongong in Australia. Studying abroad was something I always wanted to do, and combining that with my newly created individualized major, Global Health and the Environment, was icing on the cake.

Abigail (left) and her sister in Sydney
My major focuses on human health, environmental health, and how they interact. One of the classes I took while abroad, Sociology of Food and Nutrition, seemed made just for me. It pieced together many different elements of my major and emphasized the connections between our health and the environment around us. With lectures on agriculture, sustainability, food culture, and other related topics, I was inundated with information in the best way possible. The class discussion allowed for exchange of ideas between students of different cultures, religions, and national origins. I spent a good portion of time on a group project delving into the effects of climate change on communities, which directly relates to what I am studying and gave me the space to explore it on a deeper level.

While in Australia, I contacted a few non-profit organizations and participated in some of their community beach and park clean-up events. Not only did I help out in Wollongong and Sydney, but I also attended community awareness events on plastic pollution and political action. I heard speakers from the United Nations and made connections with people and companies that have led to volunteer opportunities here at home. Forming these relationships would not have been possible without my individualized major; it served as a springboard that allowed me to reach out and introduce myself.

Studying abroad in Australia also meant learning the slang, indulging in Australian coffee, meeting people from all over the globe, spraining my ankle, seeing dolphins, and studying at an incredible institution where I got to know my professors and challenged myself both academically and personally.

Coming back I was more excited for my senior year of college than I ever thought I could be. I arrived home with a clearer purpose, more confidence, independence, and knowledge than I had before. My time abroad expanded my horizons in ways that only real life experience can, and for that I will be forever grateful.

If you’re feeling nervous about studying abroad, that’s okay. I was nervous too. Do it despite your fear of the unknowns. Grasp the opportunity to grow, learn, and have fun. The world is out there waiting for you. Go introduce yourself!

By: Abigail Roth
Individualized Major: Global Health and the Environment

Diversity in YA Fiction: a great IDEA

I have always loved reading. The books I read growing up have had a profound influence on how I now view the world. But these books failed me, and many other adolescents, in one crucial way: they were written from the same Western, hetero-normative perspective. In a world as wonderfully diverse as ours, it seems tragic that it took me until high school to find stories that spoke beyond this limited view. Through the individualized Major program, I created a major entitled “Young Adult Fiction: Identity and Diversity” to address this issue. I intend to write and promote books that fill the gap in young adult (YA) literature. This past summer I took one of my first steps toward this goal and wrote my own YA post-apocalypse novel.

I was able to accomplish this with the help of the IDEA Grant program, which funds a range of student designed projects. I chose to focus on post-apocalyptic literature because we are experiencing a flood of stories with this theme, and there is a pattern emerging that I find troubling. First, there is an extreme lack of diversity. The “sole survivors” tend to be from Western culture, which implies that all other cultures are simply gone. Second, they often reestablish society based on traditional values, which reinforce stereotypical gender roles and heterosexual relationships. Rarely do these books address the complexity of individual identities. I set out to write a book that would address these issues. It’s still firmly a YA novel, despite the complex ideas I incorporated. My goal was to introduce readers to new perspectives and start discussions of relevant problems they can see in the real world.

I learned a lot in those two summer months, writing 80,000 words (roughly 320 pages) and reading post-apocalyptic stories with non-Western world views. It was a lot of work, but also a lot of fun, and I now have a deeper understanding of the difficulties authors face in incorporating such complex themes into something written primarily for entertainment. On the other hand, I also know that it is possible, and that it’s difficulty can’t be an excuse to keep the status quo.

I look forward to continuing my major and my book, which I plan to publish around the same time I graduate. I’m excited to see what other learning opportunities come my way in the two years I have left at the University of Connecticut. Above all, I am thankful for all the help, guidance, and support I received on this project. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you all.

By Amelia Bowman
IMJR: Young Adult Fiction: Identity and Diversity

When in Rome

Bryce (left) with friends at carnival in Venice

I am a rising senior at the University of Connecticut with an individualized major in Global Finance and Political Economy, which explores the relationships between the public and the private sector and their interactions in the anarchic global environment. I always knew that I wanted to take my studies abroad, and during the spring of my junior year I enrolled at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. I chose Rome because of my Italian-American background, the courses offered, and the unique opportunities that studying in the Italian capital has to offer.

While in Rome, I took courses in International Business, International Organizations, International Finance, and Italian Language. My instructors were as diverse as the classes they taught, which added to the richness of the experience. It was fascinating to learn about the European Union in one of its founding member countries. One interesting project that I completed was a research study on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and how their efforts are complementing the work of national governments to solve the world’s complex problems. In my International Business course, we completed weekly case studies on European companies to learn about their successes and failures upon expanding internationally. The course in International Finance examined monetary flows, exchange rate fluctuations and their impact on the interwoven global financial system. Learning the Italian language from a native speaker was a fantastic way to immerse more completely into the culture and allowed me to converse with native Italians on a deeper level.

Vatican City from St. Peter’s Basilica

Without the Individualized Major program, I may not have studied in Rome and would not have acquired all of the memories that I will cherish in the future. Throughout my four months in Italy, I made long-lasting friendships with the people with whom I shared the journey. Some highlights from my study abroad experience include: getting an audience with the Pope for Easter mass, hiking to the top of Mount Vesuvius (an active volcano near Naples), grabbing pizza with a cousin who lives in Rome, seeing the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland with my family on spring break, walking through Paris in the snow, attending Spring Fest in Munich, Germany, sailing in the Adriatic Sea along the coast of Croatia, and hiking the five villages of Cinque Terre in northern Italy.

I am incredibly fortunate to have had this life changing experience and would do it again in a heartbeat. The lessons that I learned both inside and outside of the classroom will continue to benefit me as I enter my final year of college and eventually the workforce. If I had just one takeaway from my semester abroad it would be that no matter where you go in this world, there are certain principles that apply universally. Among these are the importance of staying curious, showing kindness to strangers, and having respect for your surroundings.

By Bryce Ciccaglione
IMJR: Global Finance and Political Economy

Photography and Health

Marissa at work with camera

When I started searching for a career path, the one thing I knew was my love for healthcare. I researched a number of different professions, from physician’s assistant to nurse to psychotherapist. But I also have an interest in photography, and, after discovering the field of art therapy, I decided that I would combine my dream of working in healthcare with my passion for the arts. Through the Individualized Major program, I created a major called Health and Wellness through Visual Arts, which merges courses in psychology and Human Development and Family Studies with photography courses in Fine Arts. I intend to use art therapy to help patients cope with their illnesses through creativity and expression.

This summer I interned at The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, founded by Paul Newman, which provides a safe and enjoyable environment for children who are living with chronic illness. For eight weeks my job was to capture the special moments these children have at camp and present them in a slideshow at the end of each week. In addition, I created a media program that gives campers a chance to make a project of their own.

Marissa (left) and her colleague Sarah Luft

My experience at camp brought with it self-realization and a deeper insight into my career goals. The universal feeling of euphoria was contagious and made me want to be the best version of myself. I learned a lot working alongside people who are very different from me, people who sincerely cared how my day was going, who wanted to learn more about me, and who were thankful for their roles at camp. It would have been easy to get caught up in rules and scheduling, forgetting to be in the moment, but I managed to balance responsibility and fun (what we refer to at camp as “raising a little hell”). I learned how to create simple entertainment out of little things and how to communicate in an empathetic way with children and adults who were having a tough time.

This experience has given me a purpose: to do work that transforms peoples’ lives. I look forward to taking these lessons into more environments, applying what I’ve learned, and learning even more in the process.

By Marissa Aldieri
IMJR: Health and Wellness through Visual Arts

Studies in Switzerland

My name is Aaron Plotke, and I am a senior at the University of Connecticut with a dual degree in Nutritional Science and Health Policy (my IMJR). For the fall semester, I decided to study abroad in Geneva, Switzerland. The program I am participating in focuses on Global Health and Development Policy. We are covering a wide range of topics from global governance systems and health to food security and international health regulations.

Aaron Plotke and colleagues
The students in the program. Aaron is in the back row, second from the right.

The program has been (and continues to be) an incredible academic and cultural experience. We are conducting multiple research projects from local case studies focusing on health issues in Switzerland and Morocco to a final month-long independent study project on a topic of our choosing. Geneva is home to many experts in global health and development who work for international organizations; we attend lectures by them, network with them, and interview them for our independent research projects. In addition, as part of the program’s goal of cultural immersion, three times a week we are taking classes in French, the primary language in Geneva. We have also taken a few short field trips to other cities in Switzerland, such as Bern to visit the Swiss Development and Cooperation Program, and a week-long excursion to Morocco. This was one of my favorite parts of the program. We lived with host families in the old city of Rabat (called Medinas) while hearing experts from local non-government organizations (NGOs). We were as integrated into the local culture as one week allowed. The first time we walked into my host families building, I found myself in the midst of a four-day celebration for their new born cousin, in which they immediately invited my roommate and me to join. This was definitely a highlight of our trip to Morocco.

As I reflect on my study abroad experience, I couldn’t have picked a better program to complement my majors in Nutritional Science and Health Policy. The School for International Training’s program in global health and development policy has expanded my knowledge into the global arena and has also given me a better idea of what my future career may look like. Studying the work of international and non-governmental organizations has certainly made an impact on what I will do after graduation. Networking with experts in the global health and development sectors may lead to internships and work opportunities in the future!

by Aaron Plotke
IMJR: Health Policy

Emily Roller: User Experience Intern

I’m a senior majoring in Digital User Behavior. What’s that you ask? Digital User Behavior combines two of my passions: understanding human behavior (psychology) and web design (visual communication and digital media design). I’m interested in the field of Usability Research, which tests software products with users to see whether they are usable and how they can be improved to better meet users’ needs and requirements.

This summer I was a User Experience Intern with Tyler Technologies, a company that develops software solutions for the public sector (municipal governments, schools, and utilities). Through networking with another IMJR at UConn (now graduated), a Human Resources representative at Tyler actually found me on LinkedIn based on my university and stated interests.

Tyler Techologies building
Tyler Technologies building

My major uniquely prepared me for this opportunity. Through the psychology and communication portions of my IMJR, I learned about the drivers of human behavior, how habits are formed, common mental shortcuts, paths to persuasion and how people perceive visual information. Additionally, I learned to design and analyze participant studies as well as conduct research in the Judgment and Decision Making lab on campus. I applied these skills to usability testing in the lab, which involves testing new and existing products with users to see how they can be improved.

I took what I learned from my observations to conduct my own usability tests on products throughout the summer at Tyler, both internally with employees and externally with clients. We tracked the number of user clicks, task completion rates, and overall user impressions. I created my own prototypes using clickable mockups or interactive demos created using the code I’d learned in my web design class. I also worked on designing new screens for two existing programs, giving them an updated look and making them easier to use. Finally, a colleague and I conducted ethnographic research with clients, in the form of unstructured interviews, which looks specifically at user goals instead of product features.

The internship this summer taught me three key lessons. The first is the importance of asking for help. As an intern, I wanted to look competent and prove to my colleagues I could do the tasks on my own. Further, I didn’t want to annoy my new colleagues with questions. I was working on a specific project in Javascript, attempting to recreate an app a fellow developer had created. I spent about three days on this before finally caving and asking him for help. In just an hour, he explained to me his app, his thinking, and how to adapt it for my purposes. I learned more from him in that hour than I could have in my own struggling. As I began to ask colleagues for help, I came to understand the importance of other ideas and perspectives. Often others can pick up on things you may never notice. Second, I learned that you don’t know what you don’t know. I found that in early kickoff meetings, I felt confident that I had a handle on the design issue at hand and it wasn’t until conversations with clients, developers, and colleagues that I began to uncover the layers inherent to the problem. I’ve learned that when I feel confident, I should keep digging in to the problem. Finally, I’ve learned that learning doesn’t stop at school. At a technology company like Tyler, we are always learning new updates, methods, and technologies. I’ve seen that the difference between successful and unsuccessful programmers seems to be adaptability and excitement to learn; without these key traits it can be easy to be frustrated by the changes inherent in this type of work.

I’m excited to take what I’ve learned this summer and apply it to my next projects this semester – working on my thesis, working in the UITS Web Development lab, and working as the Digital Communications Director for Community Outreach.

by Emily Roller
IMJR: Digital User Behavior