Dream defined in diversity

It all started with a couple of short and simple questions: Who decides what we get and what we do not get?
“I have always been a curvy girl,” says Keyaira Phillips. “So, before it was ‘in’ to be curvy, I had the hardest time finding in Waterloo/Cedar Falls areas a selection of clothes that were trendy and cute, and that fit.”
Of course, Phillips did not know then that “there were actual buyers and teams that pick out clothing assortments and that what was available varied per locations/regions.” However, she knew one thing for sure.
“From drawing outfits when I was younger, to taking sewing classes in high school, I knew that I belonged in the fashion industry in some way, shape or form,” Phillips says. “Those questions and my early desire for style are what initially probed my interest in fashion, ultimately directing me to enroll and major in Textiles and Apparel at UNI.”
She loved the diversity in undergraduate coursework at UNI.
“We were immersed in quality assurance classes which highlighted systematic process of determining whether products meet customers’ expectations and government regulations,” she recounts. “I took product development courses which taught us the technical side to our field (specification writing, creating and constructing patterns, sewing, etc.).”
“We also had CAD (computer-aided design) classes that taught us how to create and render designs on the computer,” she adds. “Lastly were the merchandising and design courses that focused on the business, buying, consumer behavior, and design sides of the fashion industry.”
“They set up the TAPP program this way because you get a holistic overview of career paths that you might want to take or have an interest in,” she says.
Phillips also found the projects to be fun and unique, eye-opening and interesting.
“We had to make a garment out of unconventional materials (pop-cans, playing cards, etc.),” she recounts. “I made a formal wear top and skirt out of different condom wrappers. I know it was extreme but it conveyed the message about safe sex practices, a message that was plaguing college students on campus at the time. It was a huge hit.”
The undergraduate coursework was about diversity in more ways than one.
“In most of my classes, we had to do tons of group work,” Phillips says. “Having been immersed in so many group projects in school allowed me to figure out ways to work well with others and how to communicate with them.”
The lessons in effectively communicating, negotiating and working with others have proved to be a treasure-trove for her.
“When working at John Deere and Target, I had to work with people from all over the world and English wasn’t their first language,” she says. “It was a struggle at first… but having had courses where the themes were communicating effectively, speaking through common language (numbers) helped me build myself into an effective communicator.”
Diversity has marked Phillips’ career path, too.
After graduating from UNI in 2006, she did an internship with Von Maur—the department store chain that sells primarily upscale brand-name apparel, accessories, cosmetics, gifts, jewelry and shoes—in its executive training program for buying and then went into store management.
In 2008, she started her corporate career at the Target headquarters in Minneapolis as a sourcing specialist. She worked with the company’s sourcing services, buying and merchandise planning teams, imports and customs, and Target India and overseas factories, to ensure the best product selection in its stores. In 2011, Phillips ventured into the world of agriculture, having landed a job at John Deere as a planner and buyer supporting its supply chain and management.
Finally, in 2014, she joined Alliant Energy.
At Alliant, she coordinates and manages the purchase of materials, equipment and services to meet internal customer requirements, and is responsible for assuring the lowest total cost supply base and sourcing competitiveness through the procurement process. Simply put, she supervises and tracks everything that the company purchases—from desk chairs to computer equipment—and makes sure that the company gets the best price.
She also manages key contracts, materials, services and commodities, and assists with the development and implementation of strategic, operational, tactical sourcing and logistic planning activities.
Phillips says her leaps across industries have been rewarding. “I had no idea that I would go into agriculture or utilities but I am glad that I did,” says Phillips. “I will eventually get back into the retail industry but I am happy with the experience and skills I have gained so far.”
“Shocking as it may sound since fashion and retail are ever changing in terms of sourcing, merchandising, and product development, I was starting to become complacent at that time,” she recalls.
“I also wanted to diversify my portfolio in terms of carrying over the skills and foundations I had from fashion into other industries,” she adds. “Employees love the diversity within my career.”
She believes her education at UNI has helped her transition from one industry to another.
“There are many things that I can tie together between my studies in college and the work I have done previously and presently, one being the business component,” she says. “Regardless of the product I may source or buy, the basic business fundamentals hold true across the board.”
Diversity is also at the core of her advice for middle and high school students.
“Dream big and know that no job is too big for you,” Phillips says. “Tell people what your passions and dreams are because you never know what connections they might have to get you one step closer to your dream job.”
“Start early networking and job experience,” she adds. “Even if it’s a job shadow, volunteering and doing an internship, start as early as possible. The more experience you have, the more marketable you will be for that dream job.”

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 02-18-16

Passion for learning

Cody Law was in high school then. He was part of the Upward Bound Math and Science Program at the University of Northern Iowa. There, he came to know about the UNI Science Symposium.


“I was informed that the symposium awarded scholarships in the fields of natural science,” he recalls. “I participated and was awarded a scholarship in the field of Physics.”


Law enrolled in the Department of Physics in the fall of 2001.


The undergraduate coursework at UNI was much more difficult than what he had done in high school, he says. “High school came very easy to me and I hadn’t learned how to study or take decent notes.”


The undergraduate coursework involved working on interesting projects, too.


“One of the more interesting projects that I worked on in college was during a robotics class I took,” he says.


“We built autonomous miniature sumo robots that we competed with at the end of the course. I learned quite a bit in that class about sensors, programming, logic, and strategy.”


He used much of the experience that he gained in electronics and robotics when he started to work as a technician after graduating in the spring of 2006 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Physics.


As he moved into engineering, Law began to appreciate his UNI education even more.  “Much of what I learned in college was less about specific knowledge and more about helping me understand the concepts I was learning in my role as an engineer,” he says.


UNI education has also given him the tools to handle the challenges that continue to come his way, he adds.


“One of those tools is work ethic. The projects I work on now have deadlines that are months into the future, yet progress needs to be made continually if those deadlines are going to be met.”


Law has been working at John Deere for nine years and is now a new product development engineer. He coordinates feasibility builds and maintains the miscellaneous test fleet for the 9R series tractors. He also works with the onsite machine shop to have prototype parts fabricated for the design engineers.


“The thing I like most about my job is that I spend most of my time on my feet and working on the shop floor rather than behind a desk all day,” he says.


Law has meanwhile obtained a Professional Science Master’s degree in Applied Physics from UNI, starting in the fall of 2010 and graduating in the spring of 2014.


He believes students should take the opportunities they have in middle school and high school, and explore as many different fields of study as they can.


“Take shop class, music, and art,” he says. “Find what drives you. It’s so much easier to learn a subject if you find a passion for it.”


Story by Mir Ashfaquzzaman,  Graduate Assistant,  Communicating STEM
Posted: 02-09-16

Never too late to go to school

Paul Rael’s decision to enroll in the Department of Technology at the University of Northern Iowa in 2000 for a bachelor’s degree in electromechanical systems must have been surprising — to his friends, colleagues, and family.


After all, he already had an associate’s degree in electronics engineering technology from Hawkeye Community College and had been working as an electronics technician for more than 10 years.


He had his reasons, though — two, to be precise.


“I was fixing automated machines,” he says, “but seeing them being built made me realize I wanted to know how to engineer them.”


Also, the company that he was working for at the time “was just entering the OEM [original equipment manufacturer] automated equipment business.”


“Unfortunately, their OEM automated equipment endeavor was short lived,” Rael recalls. “While I was attending UNI, they got out of it. Thankfully, I decided to finish my degree anyway.”


Going back to school after such a long break was challenging, Rael recounts. “Being a non-traditional student, the challenge was juggling home life, work, and school. I had to sacrifice the things I liked to do in my free time for classes and study time.”


The undergraduate coursework at UNI was challenging, too, he says. “Some of my most challenging courses were Calculus I and II and Physics for Science and Engineering I and II, but for me they were also some of the most rewarding.”


The most interesting project that Rael worked on was his senior year design project.


“It was a standalone test cell project for John Deere,” he recounts. “It contained a programmable logic controller and a human-machine interface for the operator to customize various aspects of the test he/she was performing.”


Rael graduated summa cum laude from the Department of Technology in 2004 and, two years later, he joined TDS Automation, a Doerfer company.


“At TDS Automation, we build OEM automated equipment for various industries,” he says. “I work as an electrical controls engineer designing, programming, testing, and installing the equipment we engineer.”


What Rael likes most about his job is the variety of tasks that it involves.


“Sometimes I’m doing the electrical CAD [computer-aided design] of a project, while at other times I’m programming a machine to perform the specific task it’s designed for,” he says. “Most of our projects last from a few weeks to a few years. Every project is different, giving me the opportunity to learn something new all the time.”


He thinks what he studied at UNI laid the foundation for him to “understand and use the technologies we engineer into our equipment every day.”


“The science and technology courses taught me how to understand, evaluate, and overcome difficult technological challenges,” he says.


His days at UNI may have been challenging but Rael strongly believes “the reward was definitely worth the price.” “I don’t think I’d be where I’m at today without the education I received at UNI,” he says.


Thus, he advises students to “study in high school, dream big, and go to college.”


“For most, having a college degree will present many more opportunities than a high school diploma,” he adds. “Having entered UNI as a non-traditional student, I can also say that it’s never too late to go to school.”

Story by Mir Ashfaquzzaman,  Graduate Assistant,  Communicating STEM
Posted: 02-02-16