Travelers Internship Provides Bridge To College And Career
By MATTHEW STURDEVANT
February 10, 2012
Chadia Parnell started classes in January 2007 at Capital Community College in downtown Hartford, having no idea what went on in the looming office buildings nearby.
The same was true when Parnell's career mentor, Sandra Walker, started classes there a few years earlier.
"All I saw were buildings," Walker said. "I didn't know what they were."
Both women have lived in Hartford since they emigrated from Jamaica, Parnell in 2006 at age 16, and Walker in 2000 at age 21.
Each started their college education nestled in the epicenter of the insurance world. But neither of them had given a thought to the insurance industry — until a year-round Travelers internship program offered to pay for their schooling while providing academic support, first through community college and then through Central Connecticut State University.
The 5-year-old Travelers EDGE scholarship program is a pipeline for local people of little financial means, and at risk of academic failure, to bring them through college and into insurance careers.
The EDGE program offers students a full tuition scholarship and money for books if students maintain a minimum 3.0 grade point average. It teams with colleges to set up mentors, including students who are farther along in the program and professors known for teaching excellence who can offer advice when life's troubles jeopardize academic success.
"I don't know if I would have gotten this far if not for EDGE," Parnell, now 23, said.
The program has given more than $10 million to provide 211 students with tuition scholarships and 15 with stipends since it started five years ago. The program now reaches farther back into education, to get middle school students from low-income backgrounds to start thinking about college.
Travelers hopes to broaden its pool of candidates through the program, which partners with nine colleges and universities in different states, one high school and four nonprofit organizations. The company also hopes to reduce the gap in attaining bachelor's degrees between upper- or middle-class students and low-income students.
EDGE has had a 90 percent success rate among students expected to graduate since the program started, with 66 students earning bachelor's degrees and 16 of those hired by Travelers.
Falling In Love With Insurance
Parnell had finished 11th grade in Jamaica when she moved in 2006 with her mother. They came to Hartford to be with other family members and to find better work opportunities.
She finished her senior year at Weaver High School, and without a solid plan about the future went to work at Burlington Coat Factory in Bloomfield. She aspired to something more than a retail job — maybe nursing because she knew people who were nurses.
The retail work wouldn't mesh with becoming a full-time student at Capital Community College. So, Parnell took a part-time job in the college's financial aid office. There, she learned about a relatively new, intense internship at Travelers. They would pay for her schooling if she, in exchange, worked year-round in different business units at the company.
"I thought, if I get in, I get in," Parnell said. "If not, back to nursing."
She got in, and the internship started in February 2009. She has since worked in departments that develop auto insurance, recruit Travelers employees and develop marketing materials for bond and surety products.
Parnell struggled at first to maintain her grades and keep up with an internship that starts off as 10 to 15 hours per week, but expands over time to 20 or more hours.
She frequently relies on two of her professors at Central, David Fearon and Kathleen Wall, who are college liaisons working with EDGE scholars and advising them as they juggle their personal lives, academic work and employment.
Wall said she and Fearon help tie together what students learn in the classroom with their experiences at the Travelers internship and in their lives. The students are pushed to be critical thinkers and to think more expansively about the lessons at both work and college.
"It's been a struggle, but if I fall on a banana peel, I can't stay on the floor and cry," Parnell said.
She also had a student mentor, Walker, now 33, who was putting herself through Capital Community College by working 55 hours a week at Taco Bell before the EDGE program paid for her expenses. Walker moved to Hartford in 2000 when she was 21.
Parnell sees a part of herself in Walker. Both are working toward a career that will offer upward mobility and a comfortable salary. Both are also active in their respective church congregations. Walker is involved in youth programs and the choir at the Church of God in Hartford and Parnell is immersed socially in her Seventh-Day Adventist church.
"I think that's why we get along," Walker said. "We always focus on doing for others."
Walker graduated and now works as a claims analyst at the Travelers facility in Windsor. Parnell gets together with Walker occasionally to talk about how school and work are going. Throughout the internship, Parnell has changed her career goals and, after earning a liberal arts associate's degree, she decided to major in business management at Central, where, she said, she has a 3.3 grade point average and is set to graduate in May.
"I fell in love with insurance," Parnell said, adding that it is more exciting than it seems.
For example, who knew that insurers offer "kidnap and ransom" coverage to recover a person abducted by organized crime, pirates, drug lords or some other menacing outfit?
"I wouldn't have even thought that these things existed," Parnell said of various lines of coverage. "This is what's happening every single day around us and we don't even know."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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