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Swimming’s Brook and Hechanova Earn Magical Opportunities after Graduation

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – Later this week, two Northern Arizona senior swimmers will walk across the graduation stage and earn their diplomas, but it will just be the beginning of what will no doubt be an extraordinary summer for both student-athletes. Elizabeth Brook and Maria Hechanova have both been granted internships given only to the best of the best, and both are on their way to doing NAU proud.

Hechanova, destined for a future in the television broadcasting business, will embark on a 10-week internship at NBC Universal’s “Today” show in New York City, while Brook will be spending six months at Walt Disney World in Orlando as part of the Disney College Program.

Along with earning her degree in electronic media and film with an emphasis in journalism and a minor in public relations, Hechanova has been extremely involved on the NAU campus both as a student and athlete. She held a leadership position for two years on the Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and she has been both an anchor and reporter for NAZ Today (formerly NAU Live!) through the School of Communication. She has also been an active member of the Hapa Hawaiian Club.

As a result of strong grades, hard work and all her involvement, Hechanova was recently honored as one of 37 students in the senior class to receive the prestigious Gold Axe Award from University President Dr. John Haeger.

“I was so honored to be recognized for everything I’ve done,” said Hechanova. “I have put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into the university and into getting involved. Everything I’ve done has made my college experience awesome.”

“I loved being involved because it made my college experience more personal. I felt like I was a part of NAU. I felt like it was my university and I was not just a number. I learned a lot, got to meet some really cool people, and (getting involved) was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my college career.”

Hechanova’s “Today” show internship came as the result of an application through the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) who then picked the top candidates and sent them along to New York. After five were interviewed by phone, she was one of two ultimately selected, and the other will be her roommate in the city.

Just a few blocks away from Rockefeller Center where she’ll be working, Hechanova found housing through the Educational Housing Services organization. While she may not be entirely self-sufficient for the summer, the internship does come with a $5,000 stipend.

It is hard for Hechanova, who has never been to New York City, to put into words what the opportunity means to her, but to say she is excited would be an understatement.

“I remember watching (the “Today” show) as a little girl after coming home from swim practice during the summers,” says Hechanova. “I would watch Ann Curry, Katie Couric, Matt Lauer and Al Roker. When I was 15 I knew I wanted to be a television reporter. I’ve always known I wanted to go to New York and see what the number one market in the country is like but I had no idea that opportunity would come at 21 years old.”

The internship runs from June 2-August 7, and Hechanova doesn’t yet know exactly what her responsibilities will be. One thing is for sure, the job will require the alarm to be set early in the morning. That may be an obstacle for other interns, but not for Hechanova.

“The “Today” show is early, but with swimming I’ve been waking early for practice so it’s not going to be much of a shock for me. I need to do what I need to do and I’m going to put in whatever time is necessary.”

Hechanova credits her time as a student-athlete with much more than being able to get out of bed early. “It’s my cover letter,” she says. “I think being a Division I student-athlete really does prepare you for the real world. I tell (prospective employers) how much I’ve needed time management skills and to be organized. You have to be on top of your game. I know how to put the team before myself, and in the newsroom people need to work as a team in order to get anything accomplished.”

“When you’re asked to step up on the block and put yourself on the line, you may not always feel ready, but you have to do it. That’s your job. Now I’m transferring all those lessons into work.”

The opportunity came at the perfect time for Hechanova, who like most college seniors, wondered all year what the future would hold. “I was really stressed out this year about trying to find a job,” she says, “especially in this tough economic time and in the TV business. I sent out so many applications and I just wanted a job, in whatever market. I didn’t care where.”

The day after commenting that she really believed she could find a great opportunity after this internship, Hechanova got a call from Gannett Company, Inc., in Phoenix who was offering to start her in the 2009 Talent Development Program for the summer. Upon learning of the experience she has already accepted, Gannett told her they would be willing to talk about possibilities when she returns from New York.

“So much of it is about networking,” says Hechanova, who was an intern at KPHO CBS 5 News in Phoenix last summer, where she got to know chief meteorologist Sean McLaughlin. “He used to work for MSNBC, and he wrote my recommendation letter.” Besides the Gannett opportunity, Hechanova has no set plans or expectations for getting a job after this summer. “If it happens it happens. Hopefully a news director out there will give a kid who’s not afraid of hard work and who has passion for news a chance in the business.”

Tapping into the new age of technology and getting her name out there, Hechanova already has a website which, fittingly, can be found at www.mariahechanova.com.

Elizabeth Brook, who will earn two degrees as a double major in finance and economics with a certificate in investments, was recently named the Distinguished Senior in School of Business.

“I think it was a really big honor because they only give it to one person,” she said. “The faculty meet and talk about it and it’s so great to know that I’ve made a difference. I’ve worked hard.”

While her experience at Disney World will only be very indirectly related, if at all, to her future career plans, Brook is quite familiar with Disney after spending time there two to three times a year for most of her life in her family’s timeshare.

“Disney has such strong customer service qualities,” said Brook, “and I think in any workplace that is an important quality. And after this internship you can go on to professional internships if you want one.”

The program recruits on the NAU campus every year and Brook has always wanted to apply for it. She finally did this year, which was said to be the most competitive ever due to the tightening up of the economy. The paid internship program, who’s theme is “living, learning, working,” houses interns from all over the world together in apartments. Along with working in the parks, interns also take classes from Disney professionals and get help with real-world lessons such as resume-building.

Ultimately, Brook wants to work in a budget office of a major corporation as an analyst. The budget office she interned with last summer is currently in a hiring freeze. “I might go work (where I interned) later on,” says Brook. “In my five-year plan, I want to do (the Disney internship), then I want to work for a company for a year and return to school part-time for an MBA, while continuing to get practical work experience.”

Like Hechanova, Brook credits her time as a student-athlete with helping her learn important real-world lessons. “I think swimming has helped me a lot with my time management,” Brook says, “and also with being able to network within the athletic world and in the business school.”

Some of Brook’s positive experiences at NAU are directly related to her friendship with Hechanova, and both agree their friendship has grown a lot since they first arrived. “Maria has taught me to make my experience here worth more by getting involved,” said Brook. “I would always see how much she would do and it would make me want to do more.”

“It has been an awesome journey,” says Hechanova. “Elizabeth and I have come a long way from the dorms and we have experienced different aspects of college together, in and out of the pool. It has been an adventure.”

As two of four senior leaders on the swim and dive team this past season, Brook and Hechanova put all their experiences at NAU to use and were able to finish strong in helping lead the team to a second-place finish out of nine teams at the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Championships.

“We learned our freshman year about what’s important and how to put the team first,” said Hechanova. “We’ve learned to look at the bigger picture. As seniors this year we really knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses and what we could do together to help the team out.”

At the team’s recent end-of-season banquet, coaches and teammates heavily credited the senior class for positively impacting the team’s attitude all year long. As for Brook and Hechanova, they say their careers are highlighted by that final meet.

“We couldn’t have asked for more,” said Hechanova. “It showed how our team has changed since our freshman year and I feel like we’ve made a difference. We’ve become so much better at dealing with adversity. I’m going to miss the team. We’ve shared a lot of wonderful memories together. Being able to say you stuck it out for four years- that means a lot. No one can take those experiences away from me.”

Both swimmers recorded career-best times in their events at the final meet, and Hechanova was also part of the school-record setting 400 medley relay team. “We went out with a bang, and I’m very happy and proud of that,” said Hechanova. “It will be a wonderful, wonderful college memory.”