Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Natasha Sligh considers herself “totally Mac-ed out.” She has never used a PC, ever.
Turns out that lifelong loyalty to Apple Inc. may have served her well. Sligh is a first-year graduate student at the Virginia Commonwealth University Brandcenter and she recently accepted a position as user experience intern at Apple in Cupertino, California. As the first intern at Apple from the VCU Brandcenter's experience design track, she finds herself in uncharted territory.
“There’s no point of reference,” Sligh said. “So I hope that I make a good impression.”
Sligh’s journey to the Brandcenter was filled with obstacles and frustrations. Growing up in Virginia Beach as the daughter of two naval officers, the first time she moved away from home was when she was accepted as an undergraduate in fashion merchandising at VCU’s School of the Arts. She graduated on an accelerated track, and quickly found herself at a crossroads, unsure of what to do with her hard-earned degree. Sligh thought she might work for a fashion house someday but, after moving from job to job in local retail shops, she became determined to use her creative skills in a different way. On a random trip to a mobile phone store with her father, she logged onto an iPad and starting looking for graduate school opportunities. She read what the VCU Brandcenter had to offer and signed up to take the Graduate Record Exam, better known as the GRE, the next day.
“Ever since her application and her interview, we just saw something pretty special in her in terms of her passion and fortitude, work ethic and humility,” said Andrew LeVasseur, professor of experience design at the VCU Brandcenter.
As a part of the experience design track at the Brandcenter, Sligh learns how to take creative ideas and apply them to solve everyday problems through communications and product development solutions.
“Experience design is a convergence of skills,” LeVasseur said. “Sometimes that manifests in better communications for a company, sometimes it’s a new product idea, new services, better retail experiences, and we’re training our students to understand all of that.”
During her first year at the Brandcenter, Sligh developed a mobile application that had significance to her own life experience. An avid vinyl record collector, she saw an opportunity to create something that helped connect collectors to each other in a virtual space.
“The reason I got into vinyl was that my grandfather was my default babysitter on holidays and summer when my parents couldn’t watch me,” Sligh said. “I would be there with my grandpa with no TV and all he had was a record player. He would sit me down on the floor and he would put on records and just start talking about his life. He had a hard life, but it was cool because the only way we connected was because he had music to put on, and it was vinyl. That’s what got me into collecting.”
As she got older, she felt it was difficult to find other collectors who shared her passion, so she created a mobile application called “Play it forward.” According to Sligh, the objective of the application is to connect other people around the world who have the same passion for vinyl records as she does. Users of the app can create a profile and write posts about what records they have and how those records have significance to their lives. If a user gets a record from another collector, the user is encouraged to “play it forward” by giving one of their records away to someone else.
“The goal is to create this chain so these people know that you exist and you’re getting to know them through music,” Sligh said.
Sligh provided “Play it forward” as part of her experience portfolio in the interview with Apple. “My biggest thing when I’m trying to design is simplicity,” she said. “It’s just interesting how they’ve become one of the most valuable companies in the world and I’d love to learn what that’s like and learn any best practices from them. I want to get better at what I do and I think it’d be an interesting place to try and do that.”
Sligh may be the first experience design student from the Brandcenter to intern at Apple but she certainly won’t be the last. Several students are currently being interviewed for other summer positions at the Cupertino headquarters. “Apple is a big brand and obviously it’s a coveted position,” LeVasseur said. “They’re very selective on who they bring in, so this is just further testament to what we’re doing here, and validation that we’re developing talent that’s going out into the industry and being considered for the highest positions and careers.”
Of all the academic tracks at the Brandcenter, the experience design track was configured to teach students how to think more holistically about brands. According to LeVasseur, the Brandcenter is working to create the next generation of problem-solvers who will find solutions to help move the needle for a brand.
“There are so many stories at the Brandcenter of students who’ve just emerged to be amazing people and leaders in industry,” LeVasseur said. “They’re tackling real problems and doing something intentional with the goal of making people’s lives better and having real impact on the world. I can point to 10 stories today of graduates who are doing really important work that affects people’s lives.”
The Brandcenter places interns at worldwide agencies and corporations every summer. In the past, interns from all academic tracks honed their copywriting, art direction, brand strategy and experience design skills at Coca-Cola, The Martin Agency, Airbnb, Leo Burnett and Young and Rubicam, among many others.
“Our reputation is well-established on the agency side,” said Ashley Sommardahl, director of student affairs and industry outreach at the VCU Brandcenter. “But it was initially tough to break into companies like Google, Facebook, Apple, Nike, etc. Now that we’ve placed several interns with them, and they’ve seen what our students are capable of, they have been recruiting from us more heavily.”
Sligh leaves Virginia at the end of May to set up her summer life in corporate housing at Apple. When asked if she might pick up a few California style habits over the summer, such as surfing, she shakes her head in polite refusal.
“I just really want to go to the record shops out there in California,” she says. “I want to spend all my hard-earned Apple money there.”
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