Adrian Ayala, who is pursuing a Master’s degree in City and Regional Planning at Rutgers University, had planned to move from New Brunswick, NJ to Orlando, FL for his summer internship with Kittelson.
Sruthi Ashraf, who is working towards her doctorate in transportation engineering at Texas A&M University, had been dreaming about a California summer, hikes at Yosemite, and her internship in Kittelson’s Sacramento office.
Lauren Zuend, a civil engineering undergraduate student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, was originally expecting to be across the country from her Virginia hometown and living in Portland for the summer.
For all three of them, plans changed quickly as shelter-in-place orders were mandated across the country in March 2020.
“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,” said Lauren. “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.”
“The world changed over my spring break,” said Sruthi. “As a PhD Candidate, I was anxious about how I would continue finishing my research and still pursue the internship.”
Taking Our Internship Program Virtual
The uncertainly was real on our end as well.
Our summer internship program has been a big part of our firm for as long as we can remember. Every year, we screen hundreds of applications and carefully match interns to our 26 offices based on their preferences and interests. Interns are given the same responsibilities as entry-level employees and are paired with mentors to guide their journeys as they get to know Kittelson staff who work in all aspects of the profession. At the end of the summer, we host the “Intern Jamboree,” a week in which all interns fly to the same location for a medley of field trips, presentations, and meet-and-greets.
As the reality of the pandemic came into focus, we were initially unsure if we’d be able to have our internship program this year. We knew we couldn’t provide the full value of our traditional experience in an online setting, and were concerned about the difficulties of “remote onboarding” and the possibility that students wouldn’t feel connected to our firm through a virtual program.
However, after plenty of dialogue and brainstorming, we felt confident enough in our firm’s transition to remote operations that we were willing to give it a try – the driving reason being the missed opportunities for students if we canceled the program.
“These interns are going to be entering a tough job market,” said Jennifer Musselman, one of the internship program coordinators. “We wanted to give something to hang their hat on, and keeping the values of our traditional internship, we wanted to give them a real educational experience and exposure to the breadth of the transportation profession.”
While we were working hard on our end to restructure our internship program, our interns were also busy setting up their new workspaces at home.
“Preparing for my virtual internship was surprisingly similar to preparing for a traditional, in-person internship,” said Adrian. “Apart from making sure I had all the technological needs met, I went through the same steps as preparing for my first day in an office setting. Kittelson did a great job keeping me updated and informed throughout the months leading up to the virtual experience, and I felt like I knew what to expect going into it. One fun part of the preparation was getting to customize a storage room in my house into my own personal little office space.”
Structure of the Virtual Internship
After a few weeks of focused planning, we launched our first-ever virtual internship program on June 15 with a brand-new curriculum built around trainings over video calls, led by Kittelson staff who have experience teaching on key topics in the transportation profession. These trainings were selected to expose students to a breadth of topics – from transit to roundabouts to safety to complete streets – and give them an idea of the types of activities they’ll do on projects.
“Every week, the training had a different theme. Then we filled in with some of our traditional internship program elements, such as meet & greets and tech sessions. The tech sessions cover a combination of hard and soft skills – from consulting basics and the history of Kittelson to final design and microsimulation,” said Jennifer.
“The training sessions and group assignments on roundabouts, transit planning, and safety gave us opportunities to evaluate real-life problems and generate solutions for them,” said Sruthi. “These sessions promoted interaction among us interns and to helped us get to know each other better.”
One of our intern mentors came up with the idea to set up “project livestreams,” in which interns tuned in to watch Kittelson staff work on projects in real time and ask questions about what they’re doing and why.
Interns from past years consistently tell us that the connection with other interns is one of the highlights of their summer. To make this connection possible in the remote environment, the activities during the training were designed to be completed in small groups, with groups rotating so each student gets to work with the majority of other interns during the summer. Every Friday, the interns had a call where they got to know one another better.
“It was a pleasure to get to meet so many people across the firm, as well as meet my fellow interns from across the country,” said Adrian. “It was cool to see that people from California to Virginia were in the same boat as me.”
Takeaways From One of Our Summer Interns
In reflecting on her experience, Lauren said there were clear pros and cons to the format.
“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,” she said. “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. 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.”
She also said a few practices helped her succeed: finding a quiet workspace away from distractions, using a calendar app to organize her time, and 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.”
Looking Back on our First Virtual Internship Program
It’s safe to say we all learned something this summer. Like any virtual experience, we had our share of technology hiccups and challenging internet connections, but the program ran smoothly and we are very thankful to the 16 interns who exhibited positivity, patience, and a willingness to try something new with us.
Lauren puts it this way: “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.”
“While the pandemic ultimately changed my plans to spend the summer in Orlando, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to still intern with Kittelson, albeit virtually,” added Adrian.
We don’t yet know if we’ll be able to have an in-person program in summer 2021, but we do know this: our internship program remains an important part of who we are and we will seek to provide a valuable learning experience to students through whatever form the 2021 program takes. Students interested our summer intern program for 2021 can connect with us through “Kittelson Career Conversations,” a series of seven virtual events where we’ll highlight different aspects of careers in transportation and provide more details on our internship program. You can learn more and register for this series at the link below.