Fiona West ’16, BP America Inc.

Fiona-WestThrough the Princeternship program, I had the amazing opportunity to spend a day with two Princeton alumni working in the Environmental Law division of BP America.  The office, located in Naperville, Illinois, was a 50-minute drive from my home in a northern suburb of Chicago.  When I arrived, I was impressed by the size of the Naperville office, which is more like a campus, with several buildings spread out among parking lots, a park, and a small lake.  After watching a short safety video, receiving an ID badge, and being escorted to the office by a welcoming office assistant, my fellow Princetern and I met with the first of our hosts, Jessica Gonzalez ’95.

Jessica gave us a tour of their recently remodeled office, which used to be a production factory but was now converted into an open and airy legal office with low-walled cubicles and wide-windowed offices.  Jessica explained that the set-up encouraged more collaboration and communication among employees.  We then talked with Jessica about the work she does and listened in on a phone call with one of her clients.  She splits her time between issues with retail sites (which are basically pumping stations) and a refinery in Toledo, Ohio, handling claims of contamination issues possibly caused by BP.  It’s her job to ensure BP is responsible in keeping the work they do as clean as possible.  Although there are many popular opinions regarding “big oil” as a menace to the environment, I was happy to see that the company is so proactive in protecting the land and communities it works in.

Jessica arranged for us to talk to another lawyer in her office, named Tom, who was just getting ready to retire after more than 30 years working for BP in both the chemistry and legal departments.  As a Chemical and Biological Engineering major, I was extremely interested in hearing his story because I was not sure how I could fit my engineering background in with a possible law degree.  Tom told us how he had received a PhD in chemistry and worked as a chemistry researcher for BP, but after a while realized that he was interested in pursuing a career in law.  He went to night school at DePaul University while still working for BP.  After receiving his degree he easily transitioned from the chemistry department to the legal department working as a patent lawyer.  Tom’s story was inspiring to me because I realized how open the possibilities for my future are, and that I will not necessarily be stuck in one career track just because of what I studied in school.

For lunch, Jessica and another lawyer, Luis, took us Princeterns out to Joy Yee Noodles and we were able to meet several other lawyers and talk about their work, the company, and their families.  Everyone there seemed happy with their lives and their jobs, and offered us genuine advice and funny stories.

After a satisfying lunch, we came back to the office and met with our second host, Doug, who had been in Chicago on business for the morning.  He and Jessica have similar jobs, but work with different parts of the country.  We listened in on a conference call concerning wording on a contract for a large real estate sale to another company, and it was fascinating to see how important individual words on an inches-thick legal contract could be.  Doug told us about his experience teaching middle school after Princeton, before he went to law school—according to him, trying to convince three classes full of preteens to learn math is good practice for becoming a lawyer!  But whether it is through teaching or something else, he encouraged us to take a break between Princeton and further education, as it allows one to truly evaluate why they want to go back to school and appreciate it once they get there.  We also discussed Doug’s meeting in Chicago earlier that day, which had been a discussion with the government’s Environmental Protection Agency and several other companies about cleaning up a potentially harmful landfill that the previous owner had abandoned.

All in all, I had a very positive time at my Princeternship and was sad to see it end.  I met with many interesting people, who all came from different backgrounds and experiences.  It reassured me that it is indeed possible to explore a career in engineering or science and then return to school for a law degree.  I would like to thank my hosts, Jessica and Doug, as well as all the lawyers and employees who we met with and talked to for making this an enlightening and encouraging experience.