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PROFILE: Co-op Has Willis' Long Road to Success off to Fast Start

Joel Willis, an information technology major from UC's College of Applied Science, didn't let his standing as a co-op student keep him from taking the lead on a major charitable effort at Cincinnati utility giant Cinergy.

Date: 8/8/2005 8:00:00 AM
By: Carey Hoffman
Phone: (513) 556-1825
UC ingot As a co-op student, it doesnít necessarily sound like the best idea to get one of your companyís senior executives on the run at your behest. As it turns out, though, itís just one more indication of the high quality co-op experience being gained by UCís Joel Willis this summer at Cinergy Corp.

Entering his final year in the College of Applied Scienceís information technology program, Willis has spent the summer quarter in a co-op stint working in Cinergyís information technology department. He has found plenty of opportunity for professionally rewarding challenges, he says. Some of them he has created for himself.

Joel Willis

That was the case in getting his colleagues on the run. Willis knew of a Cinergy employee who had just received her third organ transplant. With the Flying Pig Marathon coming up, he thought it presented an opportunity to thank the National Kidney Foundation by organizing Cinergy employees to run in the race as a fund-raiser.

The end result included two four-person relay teams from Cinergy running in the race, and $1,500 in pledges raised.

Cinergy CIO Bennett Gaines

Among those running a leg of the race was Cinergy Chief Information Officer Bennett Gaines.

"This opportunity allowed me to support a great cause, and work directly with a vice president and CIO of one of the most important companies in Cincinnati," says Willis.

And that, he knows, is not part of the typical experience of most college students.

"I was rewarded for my own initiative. Being involved with the marathon has really opened up a lot of doors," Willis says. "Iíve gotten recognition from senior management because of that, and itís given me the chance to work on other high-profile projects."

For instance, he recently joined a project team made up of several managers within the company, as well as high-level representatives from a variety of global IT vendors. Willis is the only one on the team who is not a manager.

The T-shirts that Willis designed for the teams.

Willis -- who grew up in Hamilton, Ohio Ė came to UC as an architecture major and a Cincinnatus scholar. He used his artistic skills to design the T-shirts that the Cinergy teams wore in the marathon.

He also employed his IT skills. He developed a Web site that allowed Cinergy employees to purchase "squares" predicting the finishing time of each participating team. He also put together bulk e-mails, newsletter articles, PowerPoint presentations and displays on Cinergyís internal IT news network.

And, as proof that he was willing to go the extra mile, Willis ended up running one of the seven-mile legs of the race when one team participant had to withdraw with an injury.

"The marathon was the farthest Iíve ever run," Willis says. "I hadnít even trained."

Willis, foreground, running in the Flying Pig.

But, he knows, the same can not be said now for the head start he has obtained on his career plans through co-op.

"I feel strongly that in todayís workplace you canít just rely on technical knowledge," he says. "Iím often amazed when I talk to people who have earned their undergraduate degrees and they havenít ever worked in their field. Theyíll tell me they are not even 100 percent positive that (their field of training) is what they want to do, because theyíve never had this kind of opportunity where they could apply their academic knowledge in a real-world setting."

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