Earning an engineering degree is no easy feat. Excelling in your coursework—and consequently landing your first engineering job—takes perseverance, dedication, and a strong support system.

That said, wouldn’t it be helpful if you could have an insightful chat with someone who’s successfully gone through an engineering undergrad and come through on the other side with a rewarding career? We think so too. That’s why we’ve met with Pulp and Paper Foundation alumni to talk about college life, engineering experiences, and their careers in the field.

Join our conversation with Dana Cook, Vice President of Mill Operations with Packaging Corporation of America’s Filer City, Tomahawk, International Falls and Wallula mills.

UMPPF: Hi Dana, thank you for spending time with us. Let’s jump right into the first question so readers can get to know you better. Where are you currently working and what has your career trajectory been since graduating?
DANA: I currently live in Charlotte, North Carolina, and travel to our mills most weeks. I actually started my career two miles from where I grew up in Jay, Maine, as a co-op and process engineer at the then International Paper plant. Early on, opportunities took me from Maine to production roles across the south in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. I had the opportunity to join PCA as a corporate papermaker in 2014 and I never looked back.

Some people may have considered it a risk to leave a company where I had been successful and was on the move, but I knew our CEO Mark Kowlzan’s reputation (I even had a former manager once tell me I would fit in well working with him) and I have found that it was absolutely the right place for me. This can be a tough industry, but success in PCA is waiting for anyone willing to work hard and strive to be the best.

UMPPF: That’s really insightful, to trust your gut on an amazing opportunity. What was it like to go out into the field on your own?
DANA: My paper background is different than some. I tell people the paper industry has provided every meal I’ve ever had because both my parents, my grandfather, and several family members worked at the mill when I was growing up, so it was part of my life from early on.

Jay is a very small town and the people I worked with were always helpful in helping me learn and making me successful, so I didn’t really know the experience of going at it on my own.

That’s ultimately why I wanted to move south. Sure, people might want to see me succeed if they knew my family, but I wanted to prove I could do it on my own. Both of those experiences taught me lessons about myself and helped to shape my career.

UMPPF: Right, not all engineers are able to grow up around the industry or have family who worked in the mills. Let’s jump to your time at UMaine and with the Foundation. How did UMPPF prepare you for the real world?
DANA: Maine’s tradition of producing engineers who have business acumen, practical skills, a troubleshooting mentality, and above all a strong work ethic, are a recipe for success for any student entering the workforce. I’m on the hiring end now and those are the skills I look for in candidates.

UMPPF: Pro-tip to any future candidates reading this! Has anything in the industry surprised you since graduating?
DANA: For me, it’s how small the industry actually is. I’ve crossed paths with so many great people at different companies or in different roles over the last 20+ years. It is very unique in how many people you are connected to by just a single person or place.

UMPPF: Some UMPPF students are shocked once they start their co-op jobs because their perception of the paper industry is so different from what it’s really like. What do you think are common misconceptions about the industry?
DANA: For a long time, the industry did a poor job showing that paper is a renewable resource and a true green industry. Kids grew up learning paper was bad, but we’ve gotten a lot better over the years getting the real story out and improving our reputations as good environmental stewards in our communities. But we have a lot more work to do to educate the public on our sustainability and the many good things the paper industry does.

UMPPF: Thinking back to being a student with UMPPF, what is one thing you wish you had taken advantage of in the program that you’d like to pass on to current students?
DANA: I should have been more visible and involved in Paper Days. There is no better place to meet and make industry contacts because the roster of industry attendees is a “who’s who” of the people leading and shaping the future of our industry.

UMPPF: Yes, agreed, Paper Days is the networking event every year. Students make connections with industry professionals and alumni—it’s quite special! Speaking of special, if your children, nieces, nephews, or other special people in your life were considering the UMPPF program, what would you share with them?
DANA: I encourage everyone I meet who is interested in engineering from coast to coast to learn about the UMPPF—especially the Consider Engineering program! I have four kids, and I’m still trying to convince one of them to follow in my footsteps!

UMPPF: Consider Engineering is one of our favorite ways to get the word out about engineering to high school students. How would you recruit new students to the program?
DANA: I’ll continue to work with mills outside of Maine to educate students about the program including the opportunities and success of Maine engineers in the industry.

UMPPF: Fantastic! Do you have advice for current students in the program?
DANA: I have lots! Be passionate about something. Learn from everyone you can and show them that you appreciate their help. Out work everyone and be the best at what you do. Don’t burn bridges and don’t ever give up!

UMPPF: That’s all phenomenal advice. Thank you so much for answering our questions about college, engineering and the UMPPF experience.

If this conversation got you thinking about an engineering degree, we’d be so happy to meet you! Reach out to Carrie and Jen at the UMPPF by visiting our contact page.