When Holly Neill began studying BSc Hons Food and Nutrition at Ulster, she hadn’t considered working with ‘big’ industry. However, inspired by a visiting professor, she is now on work placement with Nestlé at their headquarters in Switzerland. Holly tells us what life is like as an Ulster placement student abroad, what she gets up to day-to-day and how she is settling in to a new culture.
You are currently on work placement with Nestlé in Switzerland. How did this come about?
One of the great things about my BSc Hons Food and Nutrition course is the mandatory placement year. I absolutely love to travel and so it was really important to me that I could go outside of the UK for placement. And whilst it’s amazing to spend a few days in a country, it is a totally different experience to immerse yourself in a culture for a number of months. I also knew that it would challenge me and that was what I wanted from a placement.
At the beginning of second year, as we started to discuss placement opportunities, I only intended to apply for health promotion positions. The food industry wasn’t even in my area of vision. This all changed when Professor Gert Meijer, the Deputy Head of Regulatory and Scientific Affairs at Nestlé, gave a presentation to our class. I was so inspired by his career journey, the places he had lived, his knowledge of the food industry and the influence he has made in his field. Professor Meijer then created specific placement opportunities for Ulster nutrition students. I knew I had to apply – what an opportunity! I took full advantage of the support offered by the placement staff and used their advice throughout the application process, which involved sending my CV and cover letter and a telephone interview.
How are you finding the transition from student to employee?
The transition from student to employee has been smoother than I thought. It can be overwhelming at times as others are so knowledgeable and you can then doubt your ability. But I keep reminding myself not to compare my beginning to someone else’s middle.
What are the main things you are learning during your placement and how are they preparing you for final year and your future career?
As my supervisors are so busy with their own work, they don’t spoon-feed me or watch my every move so it’s important that I use my initiative and keep myself accountable. You’re always told not to be afraid to ask questions and being here I have had to put that in practice! I’m realising that they expect me to ask questions and it’s a way to discover gaps in my knowledge that I didn’t realise were there.
My IT skills have improved significantly as I am working a lot on Microsoft Excel lately and I expect that to be hugely helpful for final year. I’m also a lot better at reading legislation and knowing where to look online for government regulations.
I’m even learning ‘simple’ things like how to write emails and introduce myself to new people in the work environment. There is an attitude here to make sure everything is excellent and I have definitely grown more open to criticism and feedback as a way to improve my work. Areas I am involved with may have an impact on the global brand and documents may be seen by employees worldwide – so everything needs to be done with pride!
Your pictures look lovely – what is Switzerland like and how are you settling in?
Switzerland is absolutely beautiful! The Nestlé HQ building is very impressive, with floor to ceiling windows everywhere – making the most of the view of Lake Geneva and the surrounding mountains.
What about being immersed in a new culture – how are you fitting in?
Making friends has been trickier than I thought as this is my first experience of not being in an environment where everyone is in the same situation as you. Connecting with an English-speaking, international church has helped, and I’m now volunteering at their youth group. Crazily the minister is also from Lisburn, where I am from, and a past pupil of my secondary school, The Wallace High School! Meet-ups organised online are really popular in Switzerland. There are many different websites where people will post about a meet-up for those interested in a particular area (e.g. practicing their language skills, doing yoga, knitting etc). Whilst it sounds really random, it’s a useful way to meet interesting people, and I’ve even travelled to Germany and France with friends I have met online.
Describe your role – what does a ‘typical’ day look like?
My role within Nestlé is related to health claims. In short, this refers to what statements you can and can’t put on a food label, both in terms of wording and visuals. At the moment I have lots of small tasks which change often so no two weeks look the same. All health claims used on new product labels must go through a panel. I am part of this meeting so one aspect of my role is to check all the necessary information is included with a submission, especially the scientific rationale. I may be part of Skype calls with different markets to be updated on global situations, or internal meetings with the Regulatory and Scientific Affairs team to be updated on everyone’s work. I try to arrange lunch with other employees as everyone is so busy you have to book people in.
How does it feel to be employed by one of the most recognisable brands in the world?
It is such a privilege! Every now and again it hits me that I’m working at the headquarters of Nestlé and I can’t quite believe it! I think everyone associates the company with chocolate so some people were confused when they heard I was studying nutrition yet doing a placement here. However, Nestlé makes a massive contribution to the field of health and nutrition. It carries out clinical trials, successful public health campaigns and is currently researching the development of an Alzheimer’s test to name only a few developments.
The company has faced criticism in the past and it is definitely aware of this. However, I have been so encouraged to hear of different initiatives which Nestlé is leading to help the environment and improve the lives of farmers. I have discovered programmes I never even knew about until I started working here.
The entire Regulatory and Scientific Affairs team are highly respected in their field and are in communication with global and regional authorities. Their knowledge and comments can shape legislation so it’s amazing to work alongside them and know that they are available to answer my questions.
What have been your ‘best bits’ so far?
One of my best experiences so far was during the summer, when I was able to be part of the Regulatory and Scientific Affairs workshop. This week-long training involved employees from all over the world who are also fairly new to this area.
It was an intense week of learning about different aspects of food law and regulation, and a brilliant opportunity to meet new people, network and be treated to a lot of good food!
I also had the opportunity to attend a presentation by Jim Lawless, one of the world’s leading inspirational and motivational speakers and best-selling author of ‘Taming Tigers’. He provided practical and proven tips to Nestlé employees to help us step out of our comfort zone and find the desire and confidence to do things we never thought we could, both professionally and personally. I think everyone in the room left with a new motivation and belief in themselves.
What does the future hold for you? What’s next?
I finish my placement at the end of April, and will return to university for my final year in September. In those ‘free’ months in between, I’ve looked into volunteering with an organisation which deals with malnutrition in developing countries as that’s an area I am keen to learn more about. I have thought about studying a master’s in dietetics or looking into another opportunity with Nestlé in England or the USA. The great thing about the company is that it encourages you to move to different countries, roles and departments. A year ago I never thought I’d be working at Nestlé HQ in Switzerland so in another year, who knows where I will be!
Do you have any advice for other students who might be considering a placement abroad?
Don’t disqualify yourself from a job or placement position. Go for it – you never know until you try and every situation is an opportunity to learn! What’s the worst that could happen?