Having an Impactful College Experience: an Alumna Conversation

St. John's University alumna headshot
By Toni Critelli

Whether just embarking on your college journey or continuing your education, the experiences and opportunities you explore can significantly impact your career.

We had the privilege to speak with Colleen Nair Fonseca ’15C, an alumna of St. John’s University who earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Government and Politics. Ms. Fonseca shared how her involvement in service trips, internships, and campus organizations enhanced her education and prepared her for her current position as the Executive Director of the Builders of Color Coalition.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a degree in government and politics? 

Group of St. John's students on a service trip

It’s a funny story. When I first started at St. John’s University, I was initially drawn toward studying biology to work in a neonatal intensive care unit. However, my outlook took a turn after I participated in Campus Ministry’s Plunge Program to do service work in New Orleans, LA.

During the trip, I talked with many New Orleans residents from various age groups, including those entering their homes for the first time in seven years since Hurricane Katrina. It made me think about the role of the government and the systemic issues that led up to the hurricane and its aftermath. 

When I returned from the trip, I realized I wanted to understand more about what was happening in the government. I switched my major to government and politics. Since then, my interest in government and politics has only grown stronger. I always credit that trip as a catalyst for transforming my interests and setting me on my career path.

During your time at St. John's, which extracurricular activities significantly impacted you? 

I was a part of the St. John’s University Chapter of the National Society of Leadership and Success, an organization dedicated to helping students develop the skills necessary to lead in their community. 

One experience through the organization I particularly loved was an activity where we were grouped into teams of five or six random people. These were called “success networking teams” and included society members from across the campus. We set goals and regularly checked in with each other to discuss our progress. 

This highly beneficial structure allowed me to form relationships with strangers and obtain valuable feedback on my goals. Having a group of colleagues on campus who were not necessarily my friends but were committed to helping me reach my goals was fantastic. They held me accountable and reminded me of the commitment I made to myself.

I was also a part of STAND, a local and national student- and youth-led movement dedicated to ending mass atrocities. What was remarkable about this group was that I met people on campus who were deeply concerned about mass atrocity events worldwide. I could network with people on campus who were like-minded, but who were also quite different from me. That experience helped me understand how to mobilize college students around an issue.

How did having an internship in college impact your early career? 

I had a fantastic internship experience at the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office in my junior year at St. John’s, eventually leading to a full-time position. This internship provided me with a strong foundation, as I had the opportunity to interact with many executives and learn from the department’s leadership. This was especially important for me as a college student at the time; it allowed me to observe how executives would react to different situations and gain insight into the department’s workflow.

After transitioning from an intern, I spent much time working with the sheriff and became someone who was always by his side. Overall, this internship was a valuable learning experience that allowed me to gain essential soft skills and insights that have been useful throughout my career.

What habits or qualities did you develop in college that contribute to your career success today?

Group of students interacting in a classroom settin

Firstly, being driven is critical for success. It means going beyond just completing your assigned tasks—strive to exceed expectations and always try to do your best. This drive should come from within as a personal motivation to prove that you can do better, go faster, and perform tasks more efficiently. 

Reading is also essential, especially if you want to be successful at the executive level. You need to stay updated on the latest industry trends every day. This requires carving out time daily to review the news and review significant industry reports weekly. This is what has separated me from my college peers. I have accelerated my skill set and knowledge by asking those in higher positions what they read and where they get their information.

What tips would you offer students aiming to have an impactful college experience? 

One of my mentors at a previous role once asked me a question that stuck with me: “Are you hungry?” At the time, I found it to be an odd thing to ask. However, I later realized that this question was meant to differentiate between those who complete a task and those who go above and beyond. The genuinely driven people will continue searching for answers and solutions.

Stay hopeful if you are still looking for valuable resources like internships or mentors on your college campus. Instead, broaden your search and explore beyond your campus. You can try using LinkedIn to directly reach out to potential mentors or ask people in your network about where they found their opportunities. 

By staying persistent and resourceful, you can increase your chances of finding the right opportunities. Stay driven, and don’t let your location limit you. There are abundant resources to build tools for success. 

Here are some important takeaways from Ms. Fonseca:  

  • Pursue your passions and interests. A service trip to New Orleans sparked her interest in government and politics. This experience led her to change her major and pursue a different career path.
  • Get involved in extracurricular activities. Ms. Fonseca participated in several extracurricular activities at St. John’s. These activities helped her develop essential skills and connections.
  • Take advantage of internship opportunities. Ms. Fonseca’s internship provided her with valuable experience and helped her land a full-time position after graduation.
  • Develop essential soft skills. Ms. Fonseca emphasizes the importance of being driven and a voracious reader; these qualities have helped her succeed in her career.
  • Be resourceful and persistent. Ms. Fonseca encourages students to keep searching for opportunities beyond their campus. She also advises students to not be limited by their location.


Thank you, Ms. Fonseca, for sharing your St. John’s story! Check out these other great blog posts related to gaining meaningful experiences in college: 

Young female professional

Toni Critelli

Digital Content Creator

Toni Critelli is a full-time staff writer for Johnnie's Blog. Through engaging content, she captures the essence of the institution, its students, faculty, and alums.