Savannah River Site internship program opens doors for veterans

 

Harry Zane used to brief senators and generals on some of the Army’s most classified missions.

But when an e-mail appeared last fall in his student inbox at Augusta University about a new internship opportunity at Savannah River Site, he said he immediately started to doubt his abilities.

“I remember asking myself, ‘Wow, can I really do this and go to college?’” said Zane, 50, who served in the Army as an active-duty soldier, reservist and National Guard member from 1983 to 2008. “I was not sure whether I would be able to handle the workload and fit the qualities they wanted.”

Zane is one of seven interns that Savannah River Remediation has hired through its Veteran Cooperative Program, a new educational opportunity that provides qualifying veterans competitive part-time pay, marketable job experience and most of all, confidence, until they graduate from universities in Augusta and Aiken.

The program, which started last October, was initially designed to help veterans transition into full-time employment by having mentors guide their training and help them earn college credit toward their degrees at SRR, Savannah River Site’s liquid-waste contractor.

Now, because the cooperative has received such high praise from local veterans, it has reached its ceiling and plans to grow on a corporate-wide level, said Scott Brown, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who serves as the program’s manager.

Zane, who is studying to become a cybersecurity analyst at Augusta University and plans to graduate by December 2016, was among the first to enroll and said he joined at a pivotal turning point in his life.

Married for 13 years with stepchildren and grandchildren, he was returning to college at nearly twice the age of his classmates to build on the system communications skills he gained in the Army and the associate’s degree he had previously earned in military intelligence.

“That was a tough decision,” Zane said of starting fresh. “It was scary.”

Zane said he spoke on the phone with Kim Hauer, one the cooperative’s sponsors, who assured him of his qualifications and his chances of being hired.

“Within 30 days, I was working,” said Zane, who works in SRR network administration through the cooperative program. “I had never heard of that.”

Brandon Twite, a 27-year-old sophomore at University of South Carolina Aiken, said some of his classmates are still amazed that he has been able to land a paid internship so early in his college career.

In a way, Twite, who served in the Navy from 2006 to 2013, said he is shocked at being accepted into the program in mid-May to start working part-time at SRR in the Design Services Engineering group.

“Real world experience is such a hot commodity because it’s expensive for a company to train someone on a paid internship,” said Twite, who is studying mechanical engineering at USC Aiken and hopes to graduate in 2018. “This is a huge opportunity that SRR is investing in us.”

Twite said from an early age, he knew he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather and join the Navy after high school, but feared his options in the military would be narrowed because he is color blind.

“I remember entering the Navy recruiter’s office one afternoon and looking at a 400-page binder of military job options,” he said. “Those options narrowed to about six job opportunities open to me.”

Twite became a linguist, translating the Persian language, Farsi, into English for the military. His training took him to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., and then to Fort Gordon when it was completed.

After leaving the military, he decided to return to the classroom to continue challenging himself. Twite said through inspecting nitrogen vessels at SRR to ensure all pressure valve systems meet required specifications, he now has the confidence to go with the self-discipline he acquired in the Navy to open new doors in the corporate world.

“There are so many avenues you can jump into,” he said. “There’s a job out there that will just about suit anyone.”

Franchesca De Rienzo, 31, said juggling her coursework with her work responsibilities has been difficult, but the skills she acquired while in the Air Force from 2002 to 2013 have helped eased the transition into an internship as an administrative assistant in SRR’s Project Management Office.

During her 11 years in the military, De Rienzo said, she developed a keen sense for catching whether aircraft bodywork was current with the latest regulations. She said that skill transitions well into an industry most driven by regulatory compliance.

“It is nice to take the lessons I learned on the flight line with my own two hands and be able to put into practice at SRR, whether it is looking at regulations, drawings, schedules or estimates,” said De Rienzo, who hopes to graduate from Augusta University in December with a degree in management.

De Rienzo urged veterans interested in the program not to be intimidated or feel that their job does not translate.

“Do not even worry about that piece of it because they’ll find a fit for you,” she said.

Zane agreed, adding this program knows how to make veterans feel valued.

“All the time, you hear lip service from different organizations about what they can do for veterans and you don’t actually see any results,” he said. “In this program, not only do you see the results, you are actually part of the progress. You are a tangible piece.”

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