by Alex Lesniak ’20
My Hollins University experience began differently than most students. Growing up on the campus had a significant impact on my early development. I was able to witness intelligent, strong, and creative students that went on to do amazing things. My mother, Jeri Suarez (Hollins’ associate dean of cultural and community engagement), and all of her students became the best role models a girl could ask for during her formative years. I was surrounded by love and empowering figures from an early age, and that continued to grow as I did. I have seen what Hollins can do for its students, firsthand, and when it came time for me to pick a school, I couldn’t think of a better fit for me.
The opportunities that I have had over the last four years have been unique and rewarding. Had I gone to another institution, I may not have received the tremendous mentoring, opportunities to develop strong research skills, or traveled the world as I did. At Hollins, helping students succeed and reach their fullest potential is the norm, not the exception.
I found my love of research at the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School, which provided the outlet to conduct psychological experiments and examine the real-world implications. I fell in love with the process, the emotional rollercoaster that is caring about something enough to dig deeper. Going into my first year at Hollins, I knew that I wanted to conduct research that would be impactful. Over the last four years, I had many opportunities to conduct my own research and assist in many others. In the psychology department, there are options to conduct research through classes but also working closely with professors on their research projects. At the end of my first year, I was given the chance to work in the child development laboratory with Associate Professor of Psychology Tiffany Pempek. This invaluable time in her laboratory strengthened my research abilities, interpersonal skills and confidence. The course I took on research statistics with Professor of Psychology Bonnie Bowers is something I access daily in my current position.
Each year, the Career Center and the Office of Alumnae Relations host the Career Connection Conference (C3), a wonderful event for current students to talk with alumnae and to hear their career advice. During my second year, I met Lauren Staley ’11. She worked at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). Lauren spoke about her time at Hollins and the experiences she had working with the non-profit organization. I knew that was a path I wanted to pursue. She gave me her contact information and said that I could stay in touch as I explored my career path.
The summer between my junior and senior years, I received a research internship at the Addiction Recovery Research Center (Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC), while working on my senior honors thesis. It was time to explore my future plans. My goal was to gain additional work experience, conducting research at a professional level, before entering graduate school. I wrote to Lauren Staley in the fall of my senior year to ask for her advice about applying to work for AIR. She connected me to a former colleague who helped me immensely in the application process.
Applying for a job becomes more daunting in the face of a global pandemic. But, by accessing the Hollins network, as well as my college preparation, I had the confidence to pursue a position with AIR. I was offered an interview with the organization. Due to COVID-19, the process was a 2.5-hour interview over Skype with multiple researchers. Although it felt intimidating at times, I was well prepared and confident in my abilities and able to showcase them.
I have been working at AIR for two months now. I split my time between two departments: the Annual Reports – Digest of Education Statistics team and the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. These two divisions are committed to increasing the effectiveness of education at every level through research, analysis, training, and assistance in the technical field. AIR’s commitment to research and evaluation provides important insight for policy makers and practitioners with which to guide implementation of certain programs, techniques, and funding. I have since gained new skills in programming, data checking, writing research proposals, and website design. I am honored to be working at this incredible organization.
Hollins helped me develop my skill set and confidence to take chances and to dream bigger. At 19 years old, I did not realize that a 15-minute conversation with an alumna would lead to my first professional position. I thank everyone who helped me on this journey.