At first, there is only the plaintive echoing cry of the whistle. Then a faint shudder begins underfoot. Soon the engine chugs into view, a plume of smudge gray smoke unfurling like a diaphanous ribbon from its chimney. Full of nostalgia and history, trains often invoke a strong link to the past. But for Jason Burke ’15, who graduated in may with a business administration degree, they represent something else as well. His future.
From Knoxville, Tenn., Burke chose to attend Union College because of its small size and friendliness. “I could see many opportunities to get a great education, make friends, and be in a good place for a career,” he said.
Burke chose to study accounting after observing his grandfather’s work as a treasurer for the Southern Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. “I enjoy helping people, so working with people to figure out how to make the most of their money is something I enjoy,” he explained.
Following a childhood dream
Like many children, he played with toy trains as a young boy. But instead of dissipating as he grew older, his interest grew. What started as classic toy Lionel and wooden Thomas the Tank Engine train sets later became HO scale model trains with intricate layouts built at his grandparent’s house. Despite having no family or friends working at a railroad, his knowledge about locomotives, cars, operations and railroads increased as his sets became more complex. Eventually, though, the time and monetary investment required by model trains pushed him to pick up a new hobby—train photography (see flickr.com/photos/jason-burke).
As he got older, Burke considered a hands-on railroad job as a train service employee. But due to federal and union regulations requiring employees to work rotating twelve-hour shifts, he realized it would prove too difficult to accommodate his sundown to sundown Sabbath observance as a Seventh-day Adventist.
Catching a ride on BNSF
The solution came in the form of a corporate internship, required for his Business Administration degree. Burke decided to apply with two different railroads. BNSF Railway was the first to hire him for a ten-week summer internship at the company’s headquarters in Fort Worth, Texas.
Burke believes Jon Turk, one of his business professors at Union, played an integral part in the application process. “He went above and beyond to double check my resume and cover letter, give me helpful tips about interviewing, and just answer any questions I had,” said Burke.
Grounded in the very soil of American history, the construction of the railroad system was elemental in far-reaching technological, economic, sociological, and environmental changes. It would lay the tracks that would eventually connect the country coast-to-coast. According to the company’s website, BNSF’s story began in 1849 as a humble 12-mile track “laid with secondhand iron” and operated with “borrowed equipment,” at the Aurora Branch Railroad, in Illinois.
The BNSF website says that today the company is comprised of “nearly 400 different railroad lines that merged or were acquired” over the last 165 years. It is distinguished as “one of the top transporters of the products and materials that help feed, clothe, supply and power communities throughout America and the world.”
I’ve been working on the railroad
Part of a team that managed BNSF’s $5 billion dollar capital budget for the year 2014, Burke had many important responsibilities. They included compiling, writing, and submitting spending requests, while acting as an intermediate between the various departments’ requests for funds and meeting with those that approved spending. He also played an integral role as a team member who created a long-range interdepartmental five-year plan for the company.
Burke credits his education at Union College with aiding in his ability to accomplish his tasks well. While the information taught in class provided him with necessary knowledge, the hands-on experiences, assignments, and group projects actively contributed to his overall skill. Learning in college how to effectively work as a team member has since proven invaluable to him on the job.
Throughout his internship at BNSF, he had many supportive mentors who assisted him in gaining an even greater understanding of the railroad and the numerous facets within the company. Burke enjoyed going to work every day. Something he especially looked forward to was the weekly meetings held to discuss requests for capital. He particularly enjoyed “learning about what was happening in various departments and what work was about to happen on the railroad,” he explained.
A challenging, but ultimately positive aspect of his internship was being in a non-religious work environment with a wide range of individual lifestyles and beliefs. Activities such as going out to eat with coworkers who drank alcohol, led him to an even greater personal awareness of his own Seventh-day Adventist values. These interactions taught him a lot about himself and about how other people live.
One memorable experience occurred in late July, when Burke left the corporate office for a day to shadow a train crew. They were tasked with transfering train cars from the Fort Worth North Yard to the Fort Worth & Western Railroad—a complicated task that involved getting clearance to use Union Pacific Railroad’s tracks and assembling a train to support local industries. The process was further complicated by railroad congestion and long delays.
During this time-consuming process, he took advantage of the chance to get to know the train crew better. Hearing about their unique life stories and families made him see the human aspect of the railroad. “I learned to care more about people and who they are,” he said. This experience provided him with a greater appreciation for individual workers and showed him that people are much more than the work they do.
With satisfaction he finished his internship at the end of summer and prepared to return to Union for his senior year. Not only had he realized his childhood dream of working for the railroad, accomplished a requirement for his education, and remained steadfast in his observance of the Sabbath—but he also had been hired upon his graduation to return for a permanent job with BNSF Railway.
Laying the foundation for success
Little did Burke realize when he chose to attend a small and friendly college in Lincoln, Neb., that it would enable him to be “all aboard” in reaching his personal dreams and goals. “It has given me the drive to work hard and pursue my goals,” he said of his time at Union. After graduation, Burke plans to begin his career at BNSF Railway as a Finance Management Trainee, and in time become an analyst for the company.
“When I came to Union, I didn’t know what I was going to do after I graduated, but I did know I was going to go into accounting of some sort,” he said. “Through the years I was able to narrow down where I wanted to work, what I wanted to do, and how I was going to get there. My biggest goal was to graduate with a job, and now I can say that I have met that goal thanks to the support and education experience I received from Union.”
It is a wintery dusk in one of Burke’s evocative train photographs. A light dusting of powdered sugar snow coats the crushed stone ballast, contrasting with the graceful dark curves of the steel rails. Out of the pale periwinkle background and bracketed by bare sentinel trees, a train passes under an old searchlight signal bridge. In the luminous glow of its headlight and ditch lights, the BNSF logo is just visible against the trademark orange of the engine. Past the click of the camera, the train races on. Symbolic of the photographer himself.
Moving forward. On track.
By Mindy Liebelt ’11