Virtual internships provide international opportunities during pandemic

CSE students reflect on virtual work experience abroad

College of Science and Engineering student Jane Schaefer has spent the last two years learning math and problem solving skills—typical engineering coursework. Fall 2020 offered her a different perspective.

Schaefer spent 20 hours a week doing technical writing and marketing for a solar panel startup company based in Dublin, Ireland, through the University of Minnesota Learning Abroad Center’s Virtual International Internship program. Her job was to author an e-book (“An Irish Homeowner’s Guide to a Zero-Carbon Home”) that educated the Irish public on how solar energy works and other ways to make homes more energy efficient.

“I realized that my major is really specific with the classes I had to take, so there aren’t a lot of chances for me to go abroad,” said Schaefer, a sophomore majoring in bioproducts and biosystems engineering. “I thought that was cool to work in marketing, having a break from my normal engineering duties and getting to write something because that’s something engineers don’t typically get to do.”

The Learning Abroad Center introduced the four-credit virtual internships program during COVID-19. While it is by no means a replacement for an in-person semester or two-week seminar abroad, it provides something different: a way for students to gain valuable experience from the convenience of their homes.

Learning on the fly

Schaefer is one of several CSE students who participated in the program, along with fellow bioproducts and biosystems engineering junior Robert Glisky and Mitali Naigaonkar, a sophomore studying computer science.

Naigaonkar spent the semester working for an “innovation consulting” company based in Spain that specialized in providing services for startups to improve their tactics and technology. Her main project was upgrading the organization’s data from Microsoft spreadsheets to a more reliable data storage service.

“The work that the company did was unlike anything I’d seen before,” she said.

“It gave me a unique, behind-the-scenes perspective into how startups operate and how innovation challenges work," Naigaonkar said. "I learned about using analytics to sort through large swaths of data, and about the ins and outs of marketing for startups.”

Glisky’s internship took on more of a classroom format. He was placed at an educational institution in Quito, Ecuador. Throughout the semester, he learned how to use a variety of computer programs like SPSS and ArcGIS, a program widely used for environmental mapping. And, he had to learn them in Spanish.

“When I would do my tasks or homework on my computer, I’d have to think of what the Spanish equivalents for certain buttons would be,” said Glisky, who used to be a Spanish minor. “My Spanish was a bit rusty at the beginning, so there were times where I didn’t know words and had to figure it out on my own.”

A lasting impression

The CSE students are already feeling the impact of the virtual international internships—not just on practical skills but on their confidence levels.

“There’s an independence that I learned,” said Glisky, who is a recipient of the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering’s Alton Leverson Scholarship. “I’m taking away the fact that I can still do the work and be successful on my own rather than having someone tell me to do x, y, z in this order.”

Glisky was inspired to take an ArcGIS course this semester because of what he learned in the program.

Schaefer was able to add her first internship to her resume.

“Doing an internship at a big corporation can be pretty intimidating. I wanted to have some general knowledge about how the process works before I dove into a huge company,” she said.

“I thought this was super great practice for me, and it’s something to add to my resume to separate me [from other applicants] when applying to another internship,” Schaefer added.

And Naigaonkar is ahead of her peers, with another virtual work experienced lined up.

“I greatly improved my communication, time management, and task prioritization skills,” Naigaonkar said. “I have another remote internship at a tech company planned for this summer, and I think the skills I practiced during my time in this program will help me be successful in that internship as well as any future opportunities.”

The University of Minnesota Learning Abroad Center is planning to continue the Virtual International Internship program after COVID-19. Learn more about the experience on the Learning Abroad Center website.

Story by Olivia Hultgren

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