May 14, 2024
Reading time: 2 minutes, 54 seconds

The journey of higher education can often lead to unexpected adventures. Courtney Bixby and Riley Steptoe, students at the University of West Georgia and recipients of the Coca-Cola First-Generation Scholarship, had an eventful semester filled with extraordinary experiences as they embarked on externships with industry giants like The National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy, through partnership with The Coca-Cola Foundation and support from Extern (formerly Paragon One). 

Courtney Bixby
Courtney Bixby

This eight-week externship – with over 9,000 applicants and only 200 students selected from all over the world – offers hands-on experience for students to learn professionalism and empower them to make an impact in the world through creating their own projects with ideas that help the freshwater crisis.

Bixby, a senior mass communications major with a concentration in journalism at UWG, delved into a project she titled “The Earth is Overdosing,” during her externship. Her project focused on the alarming issue of opioids ending up in freshwater sources. 

“I am so thankful for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend a semester working with The National Geographic Society and The Nature Conservancy,” explained Bixby. “This externship has been a profound journey that has not only fueled my passion for sustainability but has also provided me with the skills and insights to effect positive change in the future.”

Through her research and collaboration with industry experts, Bixby gained a deeper understanding of the environmental impacts of opioid pollution and explored potential solutions to mitigate this crisis. 

On the other hand, Steptoe, a junior biology major at UWG, immersed herself in a project titled “Back From The Dead: The Resurgence of the Robust Redhorse,” which takes a closer look at a fish species that was believed to be extinct for over 100 years until its rediscovery in the Oconee River in 1991. 

Steptoe’s research aimed to raise awareness about the importance of conservation efforts to protect endangered species and their habitats, specifically in freshwater sources. 

“Through this externship experience, I was able to collaborate with externs from all over the world on the subject of freshwater conservation,” said Steptoe. “As a biology major with an interest in studying algae in a forensic environment, the mentorship and guidance I received from experts in the field have not only enriched my academic journey but also provided invaluable insights into succeeding in both academia and research.”

Riley Steptoe
Riley Steptoe

The opportunity for these life-changing experiences came through the support of The Coca-Cola Foundation, a long-standing partner of UWG. Their commitment to empowering students like Bixby and Steptoe to pursue their passions and make a difference in the world was evident in their selection for these prestigious externships. 

“We are thrilled that we were able to offer this unique experience to our Coca-Cola Foundation scholarship recipients,” said Saadia Madsbjerg, president of The Coca-Cola Foundation. “This externship provided great hands-on experience, which is vital in boosting students’ career readiness. In addition to the financial relief the students receive from our grants, we are continuing to explore opportunities like these to enhance our scholars’ social and economic mobility.”

At the end of the externship, Coca-Cola Foundation scholars were also invited for a half-day professional development workshop and tour of the Coca-Cola Headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, offering students the opportunity to network with leaders from The Nature Conservancy, National Geographic Society, The Coca-Cola Company, and The Coca-Cola Foundation. 

These types of experiences not only shape academic and professional paths but also inspire students to continue pursuing their passions with purpose and dedication, highlighting UWGs commitment to curating a first-choice university.