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‘Innovation Trek’ Brings Students inside Silicon Valley Giants and Start-Ups

March 5, 2019

Middlebury Trek attendees viewed a molecule design simulation and gene modeling programs during a tour led by Jack Terrett ’11 (right), a scientist in the Discovery Chemistry group at Genentech.

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – After a weeklong “innovation trek” to the San Francisco Bay Area last month, 10 Middlebury undergraduates returned to campus for the start of spring semester with a better understanding of career opportunities in leading-edge innovative companies, ranging from Ike, a self-driving truck start-up, to Salesforce, a cloud-based technology firm.

Organized by the Center for Careers and Internships (CCI), the students were immersed in daily job-shadowing experiences, organization site visits, reflection dinners, career conversations, and the Innovation Summit Reception with alumni and parents involved in innovation-related careers. Donor funding made it possible for CCI to cover all student expenses related to the trek.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” said Gebremedhin Dagnew ’21.

CCI developed the “trek” model a few years ago to facilitate student-alumni connections. The intensive trips give students access and insight into leading organizations, and position alumni to be career advocates and mentors for Middlebury students. 

“I was, as always, so impressed with the Midd students,” said Liz Kofman ’07, the cofounder of Peoplism, a strategy firm that focuses on diversity and inclusion. “They were thoughtful and confident. It was a pleasure to meet them.”

Students shadowed and visited with alumni and parents in 24 different organizations, including well-known innovators: Genentech, Google, IDEO, PayPal, Salesforce, Tesla, Uber, Watson (IBM)—but the week was not just about large organizations. The students also met with alumni,  parents, and friends of Middlebury in smaller, start-up firms like, Atomic VC, Atrium, Brit + Co, Handshake, Ike, IrisVR, Metrus Energy, MySutro, NIMBLE, Peoplism, Shift Technologies, Tempo Automation, Quip, and Unison.

The innovation trek was CCI’s third in an annual series of weeklong immersion experiences for undergraduates—following up on last year’s tech trek to the San Francisco Bay Area and the 2017 Los Angeles entertainment trek.

“Each trek is designed to be a transformative student experience that encompasses awareness of the many opportunities within different career paths and industries, as well as interaction with key alumni and parents,” said Jeff Sawyer, director of employer and professional network development for CCI.  “Treks are a key aspect of the CCI’s career development strategy to prepare students to successfully pursue their postgraduate goals.”

“Spending the entire day with individual hosts deepened the experience. I was able to ask a lot of questions and felt like I gained a mentor by the end of each day,” says Aiko Hassett ’20.

And where awareness building and access to opportunities are explicit benefits of a trek, active advocacy—i.e., getting alumni and parents to advocate for Middlebury grads—requires more patience and ingenuity. That’s where the Middlebury Professional Network (MPN) comes into play. Each MPN connects alumni and parents who share professional interests, creating an “active career support network” that will enhance their own career development and leverage employment opportunities for Middlebury students and graduates.

“The relationships developed between students and alumni during the innovation trek position the alumni to effectively advocate for students within their organizations,” Sawyer explained.

“My student shadowers were great," said Stefan Claypool ’09, a product manager at PayPal. "They were professional, engaged, and represented Midd very well. I even introduced them to my VP and was very happy with how they handled themselves.”

The trek culminated in a reception for students and alumni on the 61st floor of the Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. Hosted by Middlebury trustee (and Salesforce cofounder and CTO) Parker Harris III ’89, more than 75 Middlebury College and Middlebury Institute graduates currently working in careers involving innovation attended the event to engage with the students and network with one another.

“Each trek is a beginning and not an end in itself,” said Sawyer. “Many of these alumni want to engage students and become more deeply involved in their Middlebury Professional Network and the Middlebury community at large.”