Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Rachel Judge joined the Virginia Commonwealth University chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers in September of her freshman year. Six months later, the chapter traveled to Nashville, Tennessee, for NSBE’s national convention. Judge was hesitant to attend.
“I thought it was only for seniors or people who needed to get a job,” said Judge, now a rising senior in the School of Engineering. “I was very on the fence about going.”
Judge called her mother. Vera Roe told her daughter to go to the convention.
“My mom said, ‘Just go and see what it is. I guarantee you will love it,’” Judge said. “My mother pushed me to take the chance.”
Judge went to Nashville. She is happy she did. The trip was an important first step in her professional development, leading to jobs at Neutrogena and the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, and to leadership positions at NSBE.
“I have been able to have so many opportunities because I went to the national convention that first year,” Judge said. “It set everything in motion for me.”
‘Two suitcases, a duffel bag and my backpack’
NSBE, founded in 1975, has more than 30,000 members. Its annual convention is massive, featuring more than 200 participating employers and academic institutions. The VCU NSBE chapter, created in 2002, is one of the most organized student groups at the university, said Anita Taylor, director of career services in the School of Engineering.
“We work hard to develop relationships with companies across the United States, but organizations like NSBE allow us to connect with companies we don’t even have relationships with,” Taylor said. “Students sometimes lead the way.”
Judge, Taylor said, is one of those students — “focused and intentional,” Taylor said, but also willing to follow opportunities wherever they lead, even outside her comfort zone. In the three years since she joined VCU NSBE, Judge has served as its treasurer, vice president and president. She attends the NSBE national convention every year. At the 2015 conference in Los Angeles, she secured a seven-month cooperative education (co-op) position with Neutrogena (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson). There was just one catch: The job was in supply chain management, and Judge didn’t know what that meant.
“On the application it said ‘supply chain/operations,’ and because I was in engineering I figured I would be in an operations role — like manufacturing,” Judge said, laughing. “But then I received my offer letter to come work in Los Angeles in supply chain management.”
She accepted the offer anyway.
“I had two suitcases, a duffel bag and my backpack,” Judge said. “It was a scary experience. I was 3,000 miles from home — and I still didn’t know what supply chain was.”
Taking a chance
Supply chain — the sequence of processes in the production and distribution of a commodity — is a common overlap point between engineering and business. Judge learned quickly at Neutrogena. She found she enjoyed working in consumer products and shepherding goods from supplier to shopper. Most importantly, she learned how to fail.
“I didn’t have any background in the subject area where I was working,” Judge said. “I asked a lot of questions. When I did something wrong I had to figure out how to fix it as fast as I could.”
Judge also realized she wanted more field experience. By the time the chemical engineering major returned to VCU in January 2016, she was securing a co-op at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, where she has worked for more than a year in currency technology. Judge is part of a growing trend at the School of Engineering, where students have completed 55 co-op work rotations in the 2016–17 academic year, up from 21 in 2015–16.
“I think [Rachel] has been a little surprised at the opportunities that came her way. She has this plan for her career but as opportunities came, she took the chance.
Her hard work is paying off — and not just for her own benefit, said Laura Lemza, assistant director of career and industry advising in the School of Engineering. Judge, Lemza said, has helped shape the school’s co-op program by providing feedback based on her experiences at Neutrogena and the Federal Reserve. She also helped create a job pipeline: In the last two years, five VCU students have accepted co-op offers from Johnson & Johnson.
“I think [Rachel] has been a little surprised at the opportunities that came her way,” Taylor said. “She has this plan for her career but as opportunities came, she took the chance. One of our taglines [at career services] is ‘experience is expected.’ For me, when I think of the incredible students we have here and the diversity of their experiences, it's wonderful to see them get the opportunity to explore engineering at these nationally and internationally recognized companies. That’s the most exciting thing for me.”
‘Figure it out’
Judge recently was named executive treasurer for NSBE Region II, which stretches from Pennsylvania to South Carolina. This week, she will travel to Cuba as part of a new VCU study abroad opportunity in which artists, engineers and entrepreneurs collaborate on design projects in constrained environments. She will finish her Fed co-op in June and return to Neutrogena in July, this time for a co-op in packaging engineering.
Her life is busy, Lemza said. She is confident Judge can handle it.
“Rachel is not afraid of a challenge,” Lemza said. “Some people want a lot of structure and handholding and prescriptive advice. With Rachel it’s, ‘OK, I’ll figure it out.’ And then she does.”
Judge will have more than two years of full-time work experience when she graduates. Her career advice for students is the same advice she received from her mother: Don’t be afraid.
“Take the opportunities as they come,” she said. “I was afraid to go to that first conference and wondering if I would get anything out of it. I was afraid to go to California. I was afraid to work at the Fed. But I’m so grateful. I don’t think I would have had any of these experiences if I didn’t take those first steps.”
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