By Staci Semrad, contributing writer
Students looking to broaden their understanding of the environment and related issues should look to the workplace environment, say alumni of the TCEQ’s Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program.
“It’s a lot different from classwork, where you’re reading and writing about it. You’re actually going out into the field and using that information,” says Penny Gibson, a senior studying environmental science at Stephen F. Austin State University, who completed a Mickey Leland internship last summer.
Gibson is among 1,347 students who have completed a Mickey Leland paid summer internship since the program began in 1992, according to Carolyn Mercer of the TCEQ’s Human Resources Division, who manages the program. The program enables the interns to work throughout the summer at the TCEQ or with one of various program sponsors, which include both public entities and private corporations.
The program’s namesake, the late U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland, was well known for his advocacy for the poor and his work as chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Hunger. Also an active member of the House Subcommittee on Health and Environment, he made progress in public health, the environment, and issues affecting minorities. He was killed in a plane crash in 1989 while en route to Ethiopia on a humanitarian mission.
Though most of the students do their internships at the TCEQ, Gibson did hers at Oncor Electric Delivery in Dallas, one of the TCEQ’s corporate partners. She worked in the Environment, Health, Safety, and Training area, where she assisted Oncor supervisors in observing and recording environmental factors related to erosion, wetlands, and endangered species near paths of existing and proposed power and transmission lines. Oncor employees used the information to determine the environmental impact of clearing trees and other plant life to make way for the lines.
“Few internship programs have operated as long as the Mickey Leland program,” Mercer says. It was started by the Texas Water Commission—a predecessor to the TCEQ—in partnership with the Texas Chemical Council and its members.
The internship program named in Leland’s honor was created to provide women, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged with work experience relating to environmental issues. Those groups remain the focus of the program.
Eligible students are those enrolled in environmental or other science-related disciplines at a college or university in the United States.
Sponsors are required to provide interns with a meaningful learning experience. Managers wishing to hire a Mickey Leland intern must include with their application a full job description or list of tasks for the intern.
“Bell Helicopter in Fort Worth has participated in the program almost since its beginning,” says Don Legg, Bell Helicopter’s director of Environmental and Industrial Safety. Last summer, an intern from Southern Methodist University researched the regulatory requirements for emergency spill response at the company.
Sponsors interview candidates and make their selections based on the candidate’s academic achievement, environmental interest, and life and work experiences. Intern wages are paid by the entity that hires the intern.
Each summer about 85 interns are awarded an internship. “Of those, about 80 percent are hired by the TCEQ, while the remaining interns are hired by other state agencies and private partners,” says Mercer. Among the current private partners are Oncor Electric Delivery, Bell Helicopter, and Pioneer Natural Resources.
Mercer says that increasing private-company participation is one goal of the program.
The program’s ten-member advisory board does the majority of the private partner recruiting. Most board members come from entities outside the TCEQ that have business relationships with other companies through which they can find additional partners.
The chair of the advisory board is Deborah Boyle, senior director of Environment, Health, Safety, and Training for Oncor Electric Delivery. Her company has participated in the program every year for the past 15 years.
“I have been so impressed with the quality of students who come through this program,” says Boyle. “They have strong work ethics, they’re very bright, they’re incredibly motivated, and they want to learn.”
Prepared for the Future
After graduating, former interns typically find professional jobs. Some of them have become environmental consultants, educators, attorneys, and corporate executives.
And some have gone back to work for the entities where they did their internships. L’Oreal Stepney, assistant deputy director for the TCEQ Office of Permitting and Registration, has long supported the internship program. About five or six Mickey Leland alumni who did internships with her have found permanent work at the TCEQ after graduating.
After getting her bachelor’s degree, Gibson plans to attend graduate school and begin working on her master’s in environmental science. When she later seeks employment, she believes her Mickey Leland internship will distinguish her.
“It’s better to get some experience,” she says, “because those who have that experience are the ones who will get hired.”
Where They Are Now
Two former Mickey Leland interns share a bit about their professional journeys.
Employer: Field Operations Division, TCEQ
Title: Area Director for Border and South Central Texas
Education: Bachelor of Science in biology, St. Edward’s University
Mickey Leland Internship: Summer 1993, Petroleum Storage Tank Division of the Texas Water Commission (a predecessor to the TCEQ)
As an intern at the TWC, Garcia helped lay the foundation for the Leaking Petroleum Storage Tank Corrective Action Specialist Program. This involved working with information on companies interested in becoming registered corrective action specialists.
Shortly after graduating in 1994, he landed a job as an environmental quality specialist at the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (renamed TCEQ in 2002) in the same section in which he had done an internship.
Today, he oversees the TCEQ regions along the Texas-Mexico border and around Austin and San Antonio. He also oversees the Concho, South Texas, and Rio Grande Watermaster programs.
“If it weren’t for that internship,” he says, “I don’t know if I’d be where I am today.”
Employer: Transmission Services Division, Lower Colorado River Authority
Title: Engineer Associate II
Education: Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering, Prairie View A&M University
Mickey Leland Internship: Summer 1999, Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission
As a college student, Bluiett was interested in environmental protection work. When he learned about the Mickey Leland Internship Program, he realized it was an ideal opportunity.
As an intern at the TNRCC, he performed a variety of tasks, including reviewing refinery permit applications to ensure that the applicants had met required benchmarks.
After graduating from college, Bluiett was offered a job at the LCRA.
He urges students interested in the environmental field to get experience, such as with an internship, or by volunteering in the community to support environmental efforts.
“Experience is important, because it’s a tough job market out there,” he says. “Just getting a degree doesn’t make you marketable.”
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