Career mentoring program celebrating 10th anniversary

Lillian Even, left, shadowed Wartburg alumna Kelsey Kovacevich at the Blank Park Zoo in West Des Moines through Wartburg’s Orange Connection program last year. — Submitted Photo

Every winter break, Wartburg’s Orange Connection program takes students to Des Moines or Chicago to shadow alumni in their desired profession.

Started in 2007, this program will be taking between 15 and 20 students on its 10th trip to Des Moines this spring. This year, the group will spend March 3 and 4 exploring Des Moines and March 5 shadowing their matched alum. The students are also hosted in alum’s homes throughout their stay.

Lilly Even participated in the program last year as a freshman, shadowing a Wartburg alumna who specialized in the aquatic department at the Blank Park Zoo in West Des Moines.

“I was able to learn many aspects of what it takes to be a zoo keeper,” Even said. “Probably the most important lesion I learned was how important it is to have rubber boots without a leak, or how important it is to check for details.”

Alongside the alumna, Kelsey Kovacevich, Even experienced the close bond between the keepers and animals, as well as assist in cleaning enclosures and working closely with animals such as rhinos, penguins and seals. Even will be participating in this year’s trip as well, though she does not yet know what career path she will explore this time.

Kim Schlesinger also had a valuable experience within the program. She heard about the opportunity from an upperclassman and decided it would help her expand her limited experiences as a music therapist.

Schlesinger shadowed a music therapist with On With Life, a traumatic brain injury rehabilitation center in Ankeny. This was her first time being exposed to this particular population and allowed her to expand the horizons within the profession.

“It was incredible to not only hear about the profession in class, but to see the work being done and the improvements it can make,” Schlesinger said.

While the main purpose of this program is to provide the students a simple introduction to their current career path, it is also a safe and fun way to momentarily experience what larger cities have to offer.

“It’s just to give people an opportunity,” Derek Solheim, director of Pathways, said. “For me, I grew up in a small town so going to Des Moines, the big city, was interesting and it helps them see another possibility for their lives.”

This idea was especially evident in the first couple years of the program. Solheim vividly remembers the organization’s first year when they visited Chicago. One of the students within that group was from rural Iowa and had never visited a city. He was eager to visit the Sears Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Chicago, yet terrified of being nearly 1,300 feet above the city.

Another year’s group consisted of several international students who experienced their first hockey game with the Des Moines Buccaneers, along with a wiener dog race at halftime.

Visiting popular locations, historical sites, plays, comedy shows and sporting events alongside the shadowing experience is a valuable factor among the students, Solheim said. Attending such events also allows the group to connect and discuss their experiences.

“It’s more than just the shadowing, it’s an opportunity for us to connect with them and learn about what they’re interested in,” Solheim said.

Applications for this year’s trip are still being accepted. Students who are interested can contact Derek Solheim at

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