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Interview with University of Maine senior Connor Alley

Connor Alley

ORONO, Maine -- The University of Maine Pulp and Paper Foundation was incorporated in 1952 by 12 UMaine graduates financially supporting and preparing well-educated engineering students for careers in the pulp and paper and allied industries.

The foundation is supported by annual gifts from more than 70 companies in 50 states, as well as individual gifts from more than 250 alumni and friends.

The Maine Pulp & Paper Foundation currently supports more than 100 engineering and forestry students with merit based scholarships and boasts having the most alumni in the paper industry.

Paperitalo Publications was able to catch up with senior Connor Alley. We asked him a few questions about his experiences at UMaine.

What attracted you to Chemical Engineering and the UMaine PPF?

In high school, I started to look into what I wanted to do and stumbled upon engineering. I knew that I really enjoyed problem-solving and that I had a good math and science background, so I began to look into it more. That's when I stumbled upon UMaine PPF's Consider Engineering program. I signed up for it, and luckily, I was chosen to go. It was at this camp that I solidified that I wanted to be a chemical engineer. I decided upon chemical engineering over other majors due to the vast number of industries I could become a part of after college, and the idea of being able to work on projects that made a real difference in the world.

I was attracted to the UMaine PPF from the moment I arrived at Consider Engineering. This camp was only 4 days, but it still managed to solidify my future major, future school, and future scholarship program that I wanted to be a part of. This program did a great job showcasing all of the types of engineering and helping me decide which one I would want to pursue. I was drawn to apply to the foundation because of the level of support that they provide, and the numerous amounts of opportunities that I could get, which would set me above others when applying for a full-time position.

Were you looking into pulp and paper when you were in high school?

Before applying for the Consider Engineering program with UMaine PPF, I had never looked into the pulp and paper industry as something I could see myself in. I didn't know anyone in the pulp and paper industry besides a few of my friend's parents, so I was never exposed to the industry. I also did not think of the industry of anything more than making paper and boxes. After meeting the PPF at the summer program, I began looking into the pulp and paper industry, and I realized how important and impactful it truly is. I realized this was an industry that I could be a part of and truly make a difference. I had also become very invested with the massive shift in the industry, as the world entered a new age of technology, and I began looking into joining the foundation and the pulp and paper industry.

Tell us about the internships and/or co-ops you have had.

For my first-year summer internship, I had the opportunity to work with Sappi Somerset, located in Skowhegan, ME, as a Pulp Lab Technician. This internship was the gateway into the pulp and paper industry for me, as I began learning the process of papermaking, from logs to finished product. My technical learning was mainly focused on the pulp side of operations, but this internship gave me the opportunity to experience a manufacturing environment and learn during a shiftwork setting. I was able to perform numerous types of testing that the process engineers would use during their projects, which gave me the technical background knowledge needed for my future co-ops. As a first-year intern with no previous manufacturing experience, I was also learning the importance of safety in the mills and contributing to that importance by keeping a good safety culture. This was a great learning experience to learn about the manufacturing side of the industry, and it helped prepare me for my co-ops.

For my fall semester of junior year and the summer going into my senior year I was given the opportunity to work for WestRock at their West Point, VA facility. The difference between my first-year internship and these co-ops was that I was working on important projects for the mill that made me utilize my previous classroom knowledge. These projects actually contributed to the mill, and they treat you like a process engineer rather than just an intern.

My first co-op rotation, I was put in the paper mill, where I got to work on projects in a fast-paced environment. In the paper mill there is always something happening, whether that is downtime or trials being run. During these events, I was able to walk the machines down and learn about each piece of equipment and the safety required in each section. I was given significant responsibility with my projects, with many providing cost reductions or improved safety. My projects focused on safety, production, and quality aspects. These different aspects also allowed me to communicate and work with other departments, which helped me gain the confidence and communication skills needed for this industry.

My second co-op rotation was in the power and recovery department. This co-op allowed me to complete the entire process of learning, as I had now worked in all three main departments in a mill. My projects this term had a much bigger focus on safety, while also having projects with maintenance and with making optimizations throughout. My findings throughout this co-op were presented to my supervisors. These projects I got to work on continued to make me feel like an entry level process engineer rather than an intern, with many projects having substantial importance associated with them.

These internships/co-op experiences truly helped solidify that I wanted to be an engineer in the pulp and paper industry. I gained invaluable knowledge and experience that will help me after I graduate. Besides just growing my technical skills, I also grew personally, with my confidence in myself growing significantly. Finally, I gained numerous professional relationships that helped practice my networking skills, a skill that is extremely invaluable in this industry.

What does this program mean to you?

I would say this program means dedication and unwavering support. Every day, the program does everything they possibly can, and most of the time go above and beyond, to ensure every one of their students are successful. Whether that is providing them with tutors in classes they are struggling with, helping set up internships or full-time opportunities, or even just being there for you when something is going on or a tough decision is to be made, they will always support you. I personally have had tutoring help, resume guidance, internship/co-op/full-time opportunities, and numerous networking events. All of these came with unwavering support from the program, who invest 110% into each student's future.

Where do you see yourself in five and 10 years, and what are your career aspirations?

I have an exciting opportunity as I have recently accepted a position to work at WestRock's West Point, VA mill after graduation. As for the next five to ten years, I can't wait to see what the future holds for my career in the pulp and paper industry.

What would you recommend to anyone who might be interested in getting into pulp and paper?

I would recommend just getting your name out there. Currently, the industry is experiencing a massive age shift as a lot of workers are retiring. Due to this, many full-time positions are opening up and many companies want to fill those with young engineers. If you aren't completely sold on committing to pulp and paper, most companies provide short-term internships with no commitment after. This allows you to first-hand dive into the industry and see whether or not you can see a career in it. If you know any professional engineers or anyone in the pulp and paper industry, ask them questions. They love to share their knowledge and their experiences of the industry.

Please let us know of anything else of interest about your experiences in the program.

For me, being a part of this program has allowed me to focus solely on my studies rather than working on the side to help alleviate student debts. This program helps you so much to succeed, and without them I have no idea where I would be at. I know for a fact that the UMaine PPF has changed my life personally and helped shape the start of my professional career so it will be successful. I could not be more grateful for Jen, Carrie, and the PPF as a whole for investing in my future.

Please tell us what year you are in the program, your hometown, and anything interesting you might do in your free time.

My name is Connor Alley, and I am a senior at the University of Maine majoring in Chemical Engineering. My hometown is Oakland, ME, and I went to Messalonskee High School. Outside of school, I really enjoy being outside, watching and playing sports, and spending time with my family and friends.


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