Aug. 17, 2020

COVID-19 a lesson in resilience for engineering interns

Creative solutions keep Schulich work experience program on track during pandemic turmoil

Internships provide valuable life lessons to students, though typically the job has to start before the real-world rewards begin to tally up.

For dozens of University of Calgary engineering students, however, the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic has provided a unique lesson in resilience and positive thinking, while discovering how to adapt when things don’t go as expected — such as when a long-planned internship is suddenly cancelled.

“While the news did not necessarily catch me off guard, as I had heard the company was performing layoffs, it was still startling when I learned my internship had been rescinded,” says Oliver Buchner, a fourth-year civil engineering student.

“After digesting the news and talking with the career center about potential options, I figured I’d better not waste anymore time and began applying for jobs once again.”

Internship program had to adapt

A pandemic of endless challenges, COVID-19 pushed the Schulich School of Engineering’s Student Services to quickly rebuild an internship program that had been hit hard by the quarantine downturn, leaving dozens of students in limbo.

“It meant we had to be creative, and look for new opportunities and new ways to provide the experience of an internship for our students,” says Jenny Cruickshank, associate director of Student Services.

“COVID has changed things, but we are looking at every possible solution, and already there are a lot of positives.”

Working directly with students on new strategies

Crisis triage was the first step, with Schulich staff working closely with employers and students impacted after internships were rescinded, delayed or ended prematurely.

Students, who typically apply for 12 to 16 months of paid, hands-on work experience, were offered training sessions to update resumes and enhance their skills, along with Zoom-based coaching sessions on how to approach employers and develop job-search strategies.

The next step was about moving forward, with a goal of being as adaptable and innovative as possible to help students get back on track with work experience plans.

Non-traditional internships part of solution

The university’s Work Integrated Learning (WIL) program requirements were modified to include options such as volunteering and non-traditional engineering-related jobs.

Meetings with industry partners were aimed at accommodating and supporting these new kinds of internships, and the result was some of the companies forced to cancel came back on board.

Other initiatives have included:

  • An internship town hall for 300-plus students
  • More than 100 hours of “Zoom Room” open office hours (internship, practicum, and career advising)
  • Mission Possible (three-day event offering cover letter and resume review; student internship panel discussion; practice interviews)
  • Website content and resources including working and learning from home, applying for jobs, virtual interviews

New job offers coming in

The results have been tangible, with new companies reaching out with job offers, and students finding novel ways to get that invaluable work experience — and as of late July, 327 students had found internships, with more job posts being added daily.

Overall, COVID-19 changed my priorities and pushed me to make hard choices about what I realistically want out of this degree in the current setting, while staying as flexible as possible,” says Rebecca Fyfe, who had originally signed up for a mechanical hardware design internship, but is now going to work with a construction company.

“Going forward I hope this internship continues to diversify my personal network, introduces me to new skills in project management, and builds knowledge of the challenges of multi-disciplinary projects in a fluctuating economy.”