A group photo of 10 members from the UMN Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

CSE senior has engineering in her blood, saving the planet on her mind

Alexis Bern turns college opportunities into life lessons and a career in the consumer products industry

In her first year of college, Alexis Bern moved from Texas to Minnesota. In her second, the chemical engineering major ran for president of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) University of Minnesota chapter. In her third, she spent the summer in Louisiana, interning with Exxon Mobil. This May, Bern is wiser thanks to those experiences—and among the 1,000-plus seniors graduating from the College of Science and Engineering.

“I’ve really felt supported at this University,” said Bern, a recipient of the CSE Marvin and Christine Ballard Scholarship. “I’ve learned a lot about myself, especially of not being afraid to reach out and ask questions or ask for help when I don’t know something.”

Bern, who currently serves as the SHPE student advisor, credits many of those lessons to her leadership experiences with the group. She’s been with it since she was a freshman, and she became its community outreach officer in just her second semester on the Twin Cities campus. After serving as vice president her sophomore year, she ran against a slate of seniors for the top position. Her presidency began that fall 2019.

Bern’s goals were to increase SHPE’s membership, send more students to the national conference in Phoenix, Arizona, and interact more with other student groups at the U. She knew her plans were ambitious. So, she sought the counsel of CSE Collegiate Life assistant directors Ben Koch, student engagement, and Dan Garrison, diversity and inclusion.

“I knew it was going to be my hardest year in my major [with higher-level classes and an internship], but I was just ready to take on that responsibility,” Bern explained.

“Things seemed to be going well, in terms of goals I wanted to achieve, she added. Then the pandemic hit. For me as a leader, it then became about keeping the group together—making sure everyone was okay, being very open to receiving information and sharing it, learning how to continue keeping members engaged with the online transition… basically, getting used to a new reality.”

In May 2020, Bern was named an “Outstanding Group Leader” in CSE’s Tin Man Awards honoring student group achievements.

Trilingual takes ‘leap of faith’

Bern was destined to follow in her parents footsteps. Both mom and dad, originating from Venezuela and Sweden, respectively, are engineers. 

“I was never the person who wanted to build things,” said the trilingual Bern, who learned Swedish, Spanish, and English as a child. “I was more interested in ideas on paper. Yes, I wanted to see them life-size, to learn how to bring them to life, but I wanted to be on the forefront of things, to impact society in a positive way. It wasn’t until my two internships that I knew what industry I wanted to be in.”

In summer 2019, she worked in Exxon Mobil’s chemicals division in Baton Rouge, La., and learned how renewables played into a big oil company. This past summer, she parlayed the technical know-how she picked up there and in the classroom, as well as the leadership skills from SHPE, into three months at Estee Lauder Companies’ Aveda campus in Blaine, Minn.

That research and development internship was part virtual, with a few in-person lab visits. Bern learned how to package items more sustainably—like using flexible and refillable pouches for shampoo products—and talked to packaging suppliers about using recyclable products.

Alexis Bern outside an Aveda driveway entrance sign in Minnesota.
Alexis Bern poses for a souvenir photo at the Aveda campus in Blaine, Minn., the location of her second internship as a College of Science and Engineering student.

“It was an awesome experience,” she said. “It sparked that interest I had in cosmetics—my grandma was super into Estee Lauder products—and it combined two things that were becoming really important to me: What’s the next best thing in renewables and how can I help in saving our planet?”

Following her spring graduation, Bern will pursue these two questions in the consumer packaged goods industry. She landed a full-time position in Ohio with Procter & Gamble, the global company known for iconic brands such as Pampers, Tide, Charmin, and Gillette.

Again, she points to SHPE for opening the doors. Bern had networked with P&G representatives at that national conference in Arizona, the one to which she had dreamed about bringing five extra U of M chapter members during her sophomore pitch for presidency.

“It was a very big relief when I got the offer,” she said. “And it all started with me taking a leap of faith when I decided to run as SHPE president.

It wasn’t until I was put in a position of leadership that I truly learned to reach out when I didn’t know something or needed help, Bern explained. That skill came in handy during my internships too.”

And it definitely helped as well in a year of protests and racial tension.

“My parents taught me the importance of culture and traditions,” Bern said. “They stressed understanding where I came from even though I haven’t lived in their birth countries. Having this grounding taught me to celebrate my identity. But everything that happened with George Floyd made me ponder my place in society, on campus, and in SHPE. I’m Hispanic and a minority, but then I’m a white, northern European and in the majority.

It’s been a tough year,” Bern added. But all the support I’ve gotten at the U and in SHPE, not just in 2020 but over the years, has helped me to understand where my story fits in.”

Story by Pauline Oo

Read about other 2021 graduating seniors and their U of M experiences:  

Inspired by CSE faculty, Hannah Pichman aims for Ph.D.
CSE senior, president, and social advocate
Meghan Cahill finds herself and her people in CSE
Robert Halverson: CSE student and future astronaut shoots for the stars
Marie Wulff is prepared to fly high in the aerospace industry
Tanmay Agarwal: CSE student finds niche in research and podcasting

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