A month before starting an internship, Valerie Pietrczak was having second thoughts.
It wasn’t just leaving the safety of school to work full-time in her field for six months. It wasn’t just worry about meeting the standards and expectations of a large company and learning to write in their voice. No, it was being 6,000 miles away from home, working in a foreign country, writing in a foreign language, knowing no one on the entire continent—plus all that other stuff.
But Honors College student Pietrczak, a Gold Axe winner who graduates in December with dual degrees in strategic communications and modern languages, got on the plane. She went to Ingolstadt, Germany, and did a six-month internship at Audi headquarters. She made friends, she traveled throughout Europe—Oktoberfest in Munich is just one of those life experiences you don’t turn down—and she found a home there. She also excelled in her internship despite her concerns about how well she’d adapt to the corporate world.
“Doing so much writing was a significant challenge, especially acclimating to not only a different language but a new style and a tone specific to the company—in addition to doing it all in a different language,” she said. “It’s something that I don’t think I could have been prepared for but am glad I know now how to navigate.”
Studying abroad was just one of the experiences Pietrczak, who is from San Jose, California, added to her resume during her collegiate career. She auditioned for the Wind Symphony, devoting many hours to rehearsals and individual practice on the clarinet. During the spring semester, she traveled to Seattle to perform in the CBDNA West Coast conference—“which is basically the equivalent to the NAU football team playing in the Big Sky Conference playoffs.” The performance was so good, it gave her goosebumps, she said, while the whole experience taught her work ethic, professionalism and creativity.
Director of bands Stephen Meyer, who leads the NAU Wind Symphony, said Pietrczak was one of the most motivated, determined and humble students he has known in his career, and she did it while balancing the many responsibilities she had across campus.
“Valerie exhibited an uncanny sense of intrinsic motivation, seeking opportunities in major companies in the U.S. and abroad to expand her skills in music and business, but was always extremely humble in her approach and always sought constructive criticism to improve her skillsets,” he said. “She is an inspiring role model and mentor to her peers and our younger undergraduates, and I am so grateful to have had her in my ensemble during her time at NAU.”
That experience, and Meyer’s mentorship, led to Pietrczak’s internship with the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra in the spring 2021 semester and her internship with Music for All this semester. All of that helped her to hone career goals, which were a lot fuzzier four years ago when she started college.
“I did start out studying strategic communications, but mainly because it is what I knew I could do and I knew I could excel at it as well,” she said. “But the communications field is so incredibly broad. That has its benefits, but it also forces you to start narrowing down a passion and your specific strengths the closer you get to the end of your studies. It’s a lot of pressure to put on an 18- or 19-year-old.”
She also took on different experiences at NAU, including being a teaching assistant for German 101 and 102 courses. Jessica Wood, associate chair of the Department of Global Languages and Cultures and associate teaching professor of German, said Pietrczak excelled at working both with her peers and younger students in encouraging and promoting language learning.
“Her own work combining strategic communication and modern language studies is forward-thinking and interesting, and it evidences a desire to encourage corporate entities to invest in community service, cultural development and inclusion,” Wood said.
Although Pietrczak is one of a few students who do internships in Germany each year, she is unusual in that she found her own internship, which was a unique position that spoke to her strengths and passions in music and community outreach. She came back a different person.
“Throughout that experience, I saw her grow in confidence, professionalism and communication abilities,” Wood said. “Her work ethic and thoughtful approach to her coursework here in the German program has been exemplary, and she has thrown herself into her work with a focus and drive that is inspirational.”
Pietrczak’s classes helped give her the skills she needs to be successful, but her collegiate career was helped enormously by mentors and professors who encouraged her to get internships and other practical experiences in the workplace, which was life changing. She credited NAU Career Development for supporting her through the sometimes arduous process.
“The NAU Career Center is the sole reason for my success in my application processes for all my internships. I feel like they are often underappreciated,” she said. “My resume, cover letters and even interview skills would be nowhere near where they are without them. Get yourself a mentor in the center early on who understands your experience, background and strengths to help guide you in the job search and application journey—I promise it is worth it.”
Working in Germany also helped her cement her desire to be in communications, just as it gave her the urge to go to new places and try new things. Audi built mixers and networking events into its internship program, so she got to know other people, found travel buddies to explore Europe and immersed herself in a different culture. She’d go back in a heartbeat, she said.
Or maybe she’ll find a job stateside that allows her to combine her love of classical music with communications, like her internship. Or maybe it’ll be grad school, though she wants a couple of years of working before she takes that step. Pietrczak isn’t quite sure what’s on the other side of commencement, and she’s OK with that.
“I feel like there is this huge pressure to have your whole life planned out in front of you immediately after graduation, and that’s often not realistic,” she said. “That’s a decision that’s been quite recent and only made after consulting a lot of important mentors in my life.”
Heidi Toth | NAU Communications
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