Four members of the UMN Society of Women Engineers.

Bring on the internships, says SWE president

Student leader shares insights on navigating college and staying positive in a pandemic

April 15, 2020

Mackensie Schuster was offered a full-time position with Alliant Engineering, a Minneapolis-based civil engineering consulting firm, a month before her senior year even began. With three summer internships under her belt and four years of leadership experience in the University of Minnesota section of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Schuster is prepared to start her career in the company’s roadway design division.

Unbeknownst to her, there couldn’t have been a better time to lock in a position. Due to the worldwide threat of the novel coronavirus, 2020 graduates are now facing one of the worst job markets in years.

“Despite the global COVID-19 situation, I am fortunate enough to still have a job lined up post-graduation, and for this I am very thankful,” said Schuster, a civil engineering major and recipient of multiple scholarships from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- engineering including the Al Johnson Construction Company Scholarship.

Although she had planned to begin work this summer, Schuster’s start date is now unclear because of the difficulties surrounding remote onboarding. Yet, despite grappling with uncertainty and an unexpected conclusion to her last semester of college, she is determined to stay optimistic.

“It feels like a very anticlimactic goodbye to the University, the student groups I was involved in, and the friends that I made,” Schuster said.

“But, I find that remaining positive has helped me adjust to the remote learning and social distancing changes," she said. "I have been going on walks with my family, playing with my dogs, and FaceTiming and messaging my friends.”

Finding the right fit

Schuster got her first taste of real engineering work before she even arrived at the University of Minnesota. Through a program at her high school in Waukee, Iowa, she was able to work at a local architectural engineering firm for half of each school day her senior year. That experience—plus an engineering course through Project Lead the Way—solidified her interests in STEM.

And, the on-the-job experience didn’t end there.

Schuster proceeded to complete three more internships over the course of her time in the College of Science and Engineering, two on the transportation side of civil engineering and one in structures. Her latest was at Alliant, working on the I-35W MnPASS lane addition just north of the Twin Cities campus.

Schuster spent the summer on site in Blaine, Minn., doing inspections and creating plan sheets for the engineers to use when building the roadway.

“That was a cool experience to be able to be on the site of what I was working on,” she said.

“It was really great to be able to watch something you’re working on be built in real time," she added.

Schuster said having a different internship every year has allowed her to explore her career options and discover what she wants to do long-term.

“I think that I learned a lot about the industry I wanted to work in and the type of companies I wanted to work for,” she explained. “I learned what type of work I was truly passionate about doing, what style of management I did best in, and the work environment that I preferred.”

When Schuster—who recently earned a 2020 University of Minnesota President’s Student Leadership and Service Award—starts work at Alliant later this year, she’ll be working on the redesign and new design of large-scale highway projects as well as supporting development of smaller roads.

Community, pass it on

Schuster said her internship supervisors cite her communication skills as her biggest strength—skills she’s had the opportunity to hone over four years of involvement in the Society of Women Engineers, a CSE student group dedicated to providing community and promoting diversity in STEM.

In her freshman and sophomore years, Schuster served as the director for SWEekend, an overnight recruiting program for female-identifying high school seniors. This year, she’s the student group’s president.

Schuster and fellow SWE student leaders at SWEekend
As a student leader in SWE, Mackensie Schuster helped organize SWEekend, an overnight program for prospective female-identifying high school seniors. Photo credit: Mackensie Schuster

For Schuster, the community that SWE provides has been essential to her personal, professional, and academic growth.

“I’ve met some of my best friends through SWE,” she said. “I’ve gotten to travel the country with SWE, and I’ve had a lot of personal and professional growth opportunities that have helped me to get jobs.”

With several of their spring events now canceled and everyone kept at home by COVID-19, Schuster has been trying to keep morale up by hosting virtual events every week for students in SWE to maintain their connections with each other.

Despite the disruption and stress the coronavirus has caused, Schuster hopes that SWE can still provide a sense of normalcy for CSE students. With graduation nearing, one piece of advice she hopes to pass down to her younger SWE counterparts is to ask for support when they need it.

“One thing I want future leadership or SWE members to know is that making improvements and making a change is a collaborative effort,” she said.

“You don’t have to do things alone—it’s okay to ask for help and advice, and that can help you to be more successful,” she said.

After spending four years in leadership roles, Schuster said she’s excited to go back to being a team member when she joins Alliant—and hopes she can pave the way for new leaders in CSE in the process.

“As much as I’ve loved being both vice president and president of SWE, it’s a lot of responsibility that I’m excited to hand over and give someone else the opportunity to grow and take over,” she said. “I think that everything in culmination makes me feel like I’m ready to enter industry as a professional, and that’s the most I could have asked from my four years at the U of M.”

Story by Olivia Hultgren

Read about other graduating seniors and their CSE experiences:  

The road less traveled
Breaking through the comfort zone
A bright future in academia awaits
From the 'sandbox' to the real world

If you’d like to support students at the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering, visit our CSE Giving website