Like many others, as COVID-19 continued to unfold, we at Kittelson were faced with the decision of canceling our internship program or reimagining it to make it work for the unique circumstances of Summer 2020. After much dialogue and planning, we launched our first-ever virtual internship program on June 15 with a brand new curriculum built around interactive trainings, tech sessions, meet and greets, and project live streams.

Lauren Zuend is a civil engineering undergraduate student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and was one of our 2020 summer interns. Here, Lauren looks back on her first virtual internship, the pros and cons of the format, and the practices she found to be most beneficial.

When I first accepted the internship offer with Kittelson and Associates, I was expecting to be across the country from my Virginia hometown and be living in Portland for the summer. But, as winter quarter ended and finals were being cancelled, the realization about the pandemic began to surface. In early spring, I was catching a next-day flight to return from college early, thinking that I would only be gone from campus for two weeks.

I came to realize that my Portland and in-person spring quarter plans may not continue in the same way as I had expected and wondered how the internship with Kittelson would unfold. Fortunately, my mentors Chris Brehmer and Kristine Connolly, as well as Sonia Daleiden, Jennifer Musselman and others involved in the internship program kept me up to date on what the internship could look like and any other details I needed.

Highlights of the Virtual Internship with Kittelson

Looking back, I can say that the atypical online program I participated in with Kittelson was an excellent learning experience complete with opportunities to collaborate with fellow interns and to ask questions.

Collaborating with others is a staple of the virtual Kittelson experience. Each week, we tuned into video call trainings to learn about a different topic in transportation, and then worked in groups of four to complete an assigned exercise. With each group, I introduced my approaches to solving the given tasks, as well as learned about different approaches that fellow group members were thinking of taking for the assignment. A bonus was that we all got to know each other better and have fun conversations after we finished the exercises.

Another defining feature of the internship is how informative it was, both with respect to learning about transportation and about the consulting industry in general. The information sessions covered topics from traffic signal timing and safety analysis to business development and the financials of consulting. In addition to the scheduled week activities, I planned quite a few meet and greets where I asked Kittelson employees about what interests them in transportation and what types of projects they work on. By reaching out to Sean Laffey and Sigal Carmenate, I even got some resources that I, as a student, can explore to gain experience with GIS and VISSIM.

Describing the Kittelson virtual internship experience would not be complete without mentioning the ability and encouragement to ask questions. During each information session and job shadow, presenters ensured that we had plenty of time to ask any questions that we had. While I was able to ask a lot of my own questions, I also enjoyed hearing the different perspectives that my fellow interns introduced.

Pros and Cons of a Virtual Internship

While not the in-person internship I initially expected, there are some unique advantages to the online program. After wrapping up the internship, here are the pros and cons that stand out to me.

Beginning with advantages: I found this experience to be great exposure to planning meetings and managing my time. Before the internship, I had barely used Microsoft Teams, let alone scheduled my own meetings through the program. By the end of the internship, I was able to quickly compare calendars with others and schedule meetings. When it came to time management, I balanced my time between class work and the internship for three out of the four internship weeks; for one week, I additionally needed to find time to attend virtual sessions for the ITE Western District conference. The virtual internship was an excellent opportunity to help refine my time management skills.

There were also disadvantages to a virtual experience. As I previously mentioned, I was assigned to intern at the Portland office–an office in a new city (and state) to me. In addition to the professional transportation opportunities in Portland, I was looking forward to exploring the area, so it was disappointing to not be able to pair the internship with the experience of a new city. Another disadvantage was that the “in-office” experience of an internship was not easily replicated through a virtual program; I needed to create opportunities to meet with people as opposed to it naturally happening in the office. However, I hope to explore the Portland area and seek in-office experiences in the post-pandemic future.

Keys to Success in a Virtual Internship

When it comes to succeeding in a virtual internship, there were a few practices that I found to be beneficial:

  • Finding a quiet space to do your work and limiting distractions in this space. My workspace was my room, but this could be anywhere from your kitchen to your living room.
  • Using a calendar app to organize your time. This allowed me to determine what I would accomplish and how much time I would dedicate to tasks every day. I recommend asking the company that you are interning for which scheduling program they would suggest for the duration of your internship — they may have a software that easily syncs with scheduled internship activities or meetings.
  • Openly communicating any questions or concerns. When you are in-person, it is easier for others to tell if you may have questions or do not understand a concept. However, in the virtual setting, you need to be ready and willing to reach out with any questions.
  • Keeping Microsoft Outlook, Teams, and/or any other communication platforms involved in your internship always open while you are working. This ensures that you will not miss any important emails or chats from fellow interns and company employees. By keeping my communication platforms open, I was able to keep the daily meetings at the top of my mind and see updates about questions I had previously asked.

Even though this year was not what I had imagined when accepting the internship offer, it ended up being a great experience with unique learning opportunities. Due to the pandemic, we’ve all experienced changes in how we thought we would be spending our 2020 year, but I found it helpful to see the positive in the situation. In this case, a virtual internship was an opportunity to practice flexibility and develop collaboration, communication, and time management skills in a completely virtual environment “” all skills and lessons that I will carry with me into the remainder of my career.