A Day in the Life: ’13 Biology Alum Ashley Grell Shares Her Story

More and more these days, high school students are feeling pressured to know what they want to do with their lives, right now. They feel the pressure of failure, even before they have stepped one foot into the career world. I know I felt that pressure in high school, and still I often have to remind myself that it is normal to not know what you want to do with your life because it will usually change as you live it. Nothing could convince me of this point more than speaking with St. Kate’s alumna Ashley Grell.

“Often I think, gosh, maybe things would have been a lot easier if I just had one focus, like nursing or engineering,” she says. “But when you talk to a lot of people, you start to realize that this weird career trajectory is actually more common than not. I feel like in high school, they make it seem like that’s not the case, but it is.”

After graduating from St. Kate’s in 2013 with a major in Biology, Ashley’s career trajectory has been all over the place, but she has never lost sight of what she really loves: working with people.

“All my jobs had some sort of outreach and informal education aspects to them,” Ashley states. “And they all have kind of tied to biology and environmentalism in a way.”

Making the College Decision

Something that I have heard quite a bit from current students and alums of St. Catherine is that they originally did not think that they would ever go to this university. Ashley was no exception. 

“I really didn’t think I would go to St. Kate’s,” she states. “But I was asked to play hockey so that’s kind of what forced me to tour the campus and learn more about it… I realized that it was a lot of what I was looking for. I wanted a small school, I wanted small class sizes, and I wanted to have more professor attention if I needed it.”

Finding the Right Major

When Ashley was a senior in high school, she put a lot of thought into what she wanted to declare as her major. She thought she would study English because it was more of her strong suit compared to the sciences. However, her father and stepmom were in a pretty serious accident that November, which then ignited Ashley’s interest in Physical Therapy. 

“I was thinking of doing Physical Therapy, and then, of course, with visiting campus and wanting to play hockey, it all just seemed to fit together,” Ashley says. 

“My financial aid package was also better than most other schools I had applied to…. All the pieces kind of fell into place and that is how I ended up at St. Kate’s.”

Her freshman year at the university, after shadowing some PTs, Ashley decided that the career path was not the right one for her. Instead, she declared her major as Biology due to her interest in evolution and animal biology. She had every intention of going to grad school, too, until one day during her senior year of college, when she studied abroad in Germany.

This study abroad program was focused on environmental studies, and it really sparked her interest. This newfound interest in this field of study and a discussion she had with one of her professors really helped her change her mind about grad school.

“I was a little bit burnt out from school and a lot of bit unsure of what I wanted to do,” Ashley says. “I didn’t want to just jump into more schooling and I didn’t want to pay for more schooling.”

Career Trajectory

So, Ashley took her interest in biology and environmental studies and decided to go into the workforce after graduating from St. Kate’s instead of going to graduate school.

Windustry

Ashley’s first job was a paid internship at a small nonprofit called Windustry. As an intern at this organization, she was in charge of recruiting and training volunteers to help run the Minnesota State Fair’s eco-friendly exhibit. Through this experience, Ashley learned so much valuable information about renewable energy, especially wind energy which is a lot more complicated than she thought. However, she learned another tidbit of information that would help to shape her future career trajectory.

“From this experience, I learned that I really do like working with people,” Ashley says. “I really enjoyed working with volunteers especially, because it’s fun to work with people who are interested and passionate about whatever it is that they’re deciding to volunteer for.”

Goodwill

Ashley notes her next job as an extremely important experience for her personally. For a while, she worked at Goodwill in Minneapolis. She notes that it was a greatly diverse experience. 

In fact, it wasn’t until she worked this job that she realized just how predominantly white her communities were. First, she grew up in Forest Lake, Minnesota, which she cites as a predominantly white suburb. She also notes that she played hockey, which is a very predominantly white sport. Ashley also points out that the number of students who were studying biology that was not related to healthcare at that time was very small and also not very diverse.

“I had a lot of very predominantly white bubbles in all of these spaces,” she says.

St. Catherine University prides itself on being a diverse school that is very social justice focused, but Ashley says that it was nothing like this experience and she was one of the only white people working there.

“I learned that working somewhere diverse and going to school somewhere diverse are very different,” Ashley concurs. “This job was just a very necessary learning experience for me that I just really needed, and it was interesting to see what I learned about social justice at St. Kate’s come alive a bit in the real world.”

Como Zoo

One of Ashley’s favorite jobs was when she worked at Como Zoo, greeting and training volunteers to educate the public about the plants and animals. 

“It was a really awesome job– definitely my favorite job that I’ve had,” she says.

Though she loved this job so much, it was run by the City of St. Paul, who classified the job as a temporary position, so the pay was not great and there were no benefits, unfortunately. 

“I wanted to work there forever, but I knew it just wasn’t sustainable,” Ashley says.

GreenCorps – Urban Roots

Her next job was at a place called GreenCorps, which she describes as, “like AmeriCorps, but specifically focused on the environmental field.” Within GreenCorps, she was placed at a non-profit in St. Paul called Urban Roots. 

This, she says, was another fun experience; she often spent her days out in fields, learning about native Minnesotan plants and supervising the high school students who volunteered with the program. However, the program was only 11 months long, so she ended up looking for another job when it ended.

Tree Trust

Ashley then worked at TreeTrust, who were located in St. Louis Park and have since moved to St. Paul. For this non-profit organization, she did outreach and recruitment for their youth program.

A Day in the Life

Now, Ashley works as an Employer Engagement Associate at AchieveMPLS where she works with employers and youth to coordinate and set up summer internships. Because of the program cycles of her particular program, “Step-up”, the job differs depending on the time of the year.

Fall

During the fall, Ashley meets with her employer partners to debrief how the summer internships went. Usually, these meetings are in-person, but because of the global pandemic, they have moved to an online format.

Also in the autumn, Ashley begins planning for the following year and works to increase internships at companies by giving presentations and meeting with numerous people. Any big changes to the program will happen in this season.

Winter

By winter, things are starting to heat up as Ashley must get a commitment from the employer partners. She works with these employers to fill out paperwork, create job descriptions, and begin looking for students to fill the internships.

A lot of what she does is the winter is working on putting on the program kickoff event in February. This event brings people together, students and employers alike, so it is Ashley’s job to keep track of a lot of moving parts.

Spring

Spring is the time to begin training students for their internships. Because there are two sides of work, the student side and the employer side, and Ashley works on the employers side, her days begin to chill out a little bit in the spring.

However, she is an integral part of the placement process, where the team does 1-to-1 matching between students and employers.

“It’s kind of fun,” Ashley says. “It’s like a big puzzle to match students.”

Summer

Once summer rolls around, internships begin. This is the first time that students are interning remotely, 

so the process is a little different this year, but COVID-19 has not changed a lot about Ashley’s work.

“I was really lucky,” she reflects. “My job was really easy to do from home. I like having that flexibility and I’m very fortunate to have it.”

Advice for Katies

I asked Ashley what her best advice was for current St. Kate’s students who are preparing to join the workforce. Here are her top tips:

  • “Don’t get hung up on the job title itself,” Ashley suggests. “Sometimes people don’t do the best job of capturing what the job is through the title. You really don’t know what you could be qualified for until you really read through the job description.”
  • “Consider other things that you might be looking for in a job,” she says. “Especially if you’re not really sure about what you want to do, looking at appealing aspects of a job could open up so many other doors and jobs that you had never thought about before.”
  • “If you’re really not sure exactly what you’re wanting to do, thinking about some of those other aspects that are going to help you with your work/life balance (flexibility, benefits, vacation) and just, ya, know, what is going to bring you joy?”
By Mandy Hay
Mandy Hay Career Assistant Mandy Hay