Summer transportation interns find opportunities among pandemic challenges

2020 MnDOT interns in the field standing in front of a bridge construction site
MnDOT interns Zoe Jeske and Amanda McCann

Despite the global pandemic, a handful of university students still found a way to gain valuable work experience in transportation-related internships with CTS partners Ramsey County and MnDOT.

Five Ramsey County All-Abilities Transportation Network interns, including three from the U of M, worked in different parts of the county—public works, community economic development, and parks and recreation. In a typical summer, Ramsey County also brings the interns and their supervisors together for learning opportunities, such as tours of transportation facilities.

“This summer, due to COVID, we moved all our programming online,” says Frank Alarcon, coordinator of the program. “While we missed the opportunity to connect in-person, the cohort still was able to connect and learn from each other and guest speakers during these online activities.”

In fact, this was the first time interns—or any county staff—have worked fully remotely. “We’ve been very impressed with the quality of their work and proficiency communicating their work products,” Alarcon adds. “Virtual meetings have actually allowed them to participate in a greater variety of county projects and initiatives than would have otherwise been possible."

As a result, three Humphrey School graduate planning students have obtained substantial real-world experience. Katie Emory presented research to department leaders about implementation of red pavement markings for bus rapid transit projects. Caroline Ketcham presented case studies of transit-oriented development planning around the country.

Ramsey County intern holding an osprey that's being tagged
Ramsey County intern Mathias Hughey

Mathias Hughey, in a dual-degree program also studying landscape architecture, has been reviewing as-built plans and verifying conditions on-site at Ramsey County parks.

“The internship has provided insight into the management of natural resources within parks,” Hughey says. “A highlight from my summer experience was participating in the osprey banding, where a group of stakeholders come together to monitor the local osprey populations.

At MnDOT, in addition to the pandemic, a hiring freeze also complicated the internship program, according to coordinator Denise Hals. “Two of the many challenges this summer were the hiring process and teleworking,” she says. “We were originally set to hire 20 students but ended up with 2.”

The two students, both from the U of M, worked mostly outdoors with the MnDOT bridge maintenance and inspection office assisting crews as they work to meet federal inspection requirements.

“I’ve really been enjoying getting to know the metro area better and learning about the different types and components of bridges and how they work and deteriorate over time,” says Zoe Jeske, a University junior studying civil engineering with an emphasis in structures. “As far as COVID-19, I think that we’ve adjusted well. We’re extremely mobile, which gives us the flexibility to work in the field as well as from home. This has helped us work more efficiently and has allowed me to be able to visit some extra bridges for a wider variety.”

Amanda McCann, a University senior in civil engineering also focusing on structures, has found opportunities at MnDOT, too, among the special challenges presented by the pandemic. She particularly appreciates the first-hand experience bringing to life what she’d recently learned in school. “I just finished my concrete class where we got to calculate how to design a concrete structure,” she says. “It was also nice to be able to meet professional engineers in the same field as me and get to hear about their experience as well.”

Both McCann and Jeske feel their experience at MnDOT has helped provide a solid foundation for a career in bridge engineering, with perhaps grad school also on the horizon. Each especially values the professional connections they’ve developed during this unusual summer.

The MnDOT internship program is in its ninth year, and the Ramsey County program is in its third year.

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Michael McCarthy