Students have to think outside-the-box to prepare for success in the working world after graduating from college. Proactively pursuing internships, mentorships, and even participating in national competitions in your chosen field can show future employers that you have hands-on experience to supplement your coursework. These experiences provide students an edge that is a great way to set themselves apart in a competitive job market, while also creating connections that will benefit them throughout their professional careers.

Andrew Mitchell, an engineering student at Tuskegee University, has been seeking ways to connect with the renewable energy industry while still working to complete his degree.

In May of 2018, Mitchell attended the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) WINDPOWER conference where he learned about the U.S. Department of Energy Collegiate Wind Competition. This competition challenges interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate students to create unique solutions to complex wind energy projects and provides students with real-world experience as they prepare to enter the wind industry workforce.

Student stands in front of industry booths at the AWEA WINDPOWER conference.

Andrew Mitchell attended the AWEA WINDPOWER conference and was inspired to assemble a team for the U.S. Department of Energy Collegiate Wind Competition. Photo by Bethany Straw, NREL

That real-world experience is exactly what Mitchell was looking for, so he set about assembling a team. The WINDPOWER conference gave him direct access to students participating in the 2018 competition, and he interviewed many of them for tips on creating a stand-out application and persevering through the lengthy application process.

Mentorship is crucial to the success of these teams, both during the application process and throughout the competition itself. Mitchell approached several professors and department heads after he first heard about the conference.

Dr. Ben Oni, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Interim Head of Electrical Engineering at Tuskegee University, was enthusiastic about Mitchell’s idea. In addition to supporting his efforts to create a 2020 team, Dr. Oni wanted to establish the contest as part of the program at Tuskegee.

Dr. Oni previously mentored a team for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon®, a collegiate competition that challenges student teams to design and build efficient and innovative buildings powered by renewable energy, so he knew that these competitions are worthwhile—and that they required committed students.

During the Solar Decathlon, Oni learned that the entire team must be invested in putting a lot of time into the competition, or just a few students end up doing the work alone. Mitchell had already proven his dedication and willingness to lead, which played a part in persuading Dr. Oni to support him.

“I know from experience that these competitions are beneficial to the students who participate. They learn quite a bit,” said Dr. Oni. “I try to encourage any opportunity that unveils more learning to students.”

Maintaining student interest over the long application process can be a challenge, particularly since the cycles are so lengthy. With two years between application cycles, teams need a plan to maintain momentum and engagement.

A student team in the Collegiate Wind Competition stands on stage in front of a banner at the WINDPOWER conference.

Connecting with teams currently participating in the Collegiate Wind Competition sparked Mitchell’s interest and helped him craft a strong application for the 2020 competition. Photo by Andrew Mitchell, Tuskegee University

Mitchell built enthusiasm among his peers by connecting with others who shared his interests. He kicked off the process by documenting his vision, which included a project description, his recruitment plan and materials, and a timeline. Mitchell worked to attract a diverse team to give his team a leg-up in the competition.

Students can choose to participate in a range of challenges, so having representatives from various backgrounds helps to get the creative ideas flowing. Mitchell recruited team members from all areas of engineering and business. He also got buy-in from the deans of the various schools, who mandated support for the efforts.

As incentive for students to get—and stay—involved, Tuskegee allowed engineering students to use their work in the competition as part of their senior design project, while business students were also able to satisfy degree requirements by participating. These incentives helped ensure that the busy students would stay involved and engaged with the work, since it fell under the coursework they prioritized.

Connections to the industry were additional incentive for students looking beyond their years in the classroom. Student participants connect with alumni and industry members as they seek project funding. Some alumni have even joined on as mentors and members of advisory boards, providing technical guidance to the students.

All the hard work of the application process has paid off: the Tuskegee team was selected to participate in the 2020 competition. The Collegiate Wind Competition 2020 will be held at AWEA WINDPOWER conference in Denver, Colorado, in June 2020.

“I know it’s going to take a lot of work,” said Mitchell. “But knowing the level of expertise of the other competitors, we are really excited to take on the challenge.”