When You Give a Girl an Internship

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This past summer, I had the honor and exciting opportunity to intern at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center as a mechanical engineering intern. It was truly the best summer of my life! I worked in the Mechanical and Structural Design Branch (where some of the most amazing spacecraft and innovative things are designed!!!) alongside an intern in the Materials Science Branch. I learned so many things about not only engineering design and testing but also about the business side of engineering---something that has given me the desire to earn an MBA alongside a graduate engineering degree. 

Though I had the time of my life (and met the greatest people, as seen in the cover photo), it was still work. As such, looking back, I realized how I could have improved my work and general intern presence in so many ways, and I'd like to share a few tips with you guys.

 

1. The greatest disservice you can do yourself is to underestimate your abilities.

The semester before I had this internship, I took engineering physics 1, and it rocked my world. Without going into too much detail, the class led me to believe I was incompetent and lacked the skills necessary to become a great engineer, even more so a NASA engineer. Why was I only average, while others in my class breezed through the class? What did they have that I didn't? There is no one answer to that. Maybe they had AP Physics in high school. Maybe they clicked with the professor's (horrible) teaching style. Maybe they just got it. I didn't know, but I had convinced myself I was talentless, and I didn't have a backup plan. Thankfully, my dad, who is also an engineer, worked with me on the problems and taught me other ways of solving them that actually clicked. All it took was me approaching the problems from a different viewpoint. Did I beat the class average? No, not even close. But I passed. I understood the concepts, regardless of how the exams basically asked me to explain how to build a rocket when all I'm given as information is that 2 + 2 = 4. Moral of the story: I got to NASA that summer and met brilliant people---key word: people. They had failed. They had struggled. And they were still talented engineers and men and women with passions outside of their field of work. Those mentors and inspirations taught me the one lesson that is imprinted upon my brain now and forever more: do not, under any circumstance, compare yourself to others and undersell yourself. Ever. 

 

2. Do not be afraid to ask questions.

Being so much younger and less experienced than my mentor and coworkers frightened me for the first few weeks. I believed I would be an annoyance to my mentor if I asked him questions, whether it were a simple question or a more complex one. One day, however, it hit me that he was my mentor. He volunteered to take on an intern to--wait for it--mentor. That is, he signed up to answer questions and teach me things, and I was not a nuisance. I was a contributor, albeit a small one, to one of his projects. My mentor was incredibly supportive and helpful all of the time, but my insecurities almost kept me from contributing to our project as best I could and learning from one of the most talented engineers I have ever met. 

Don't know how to format a test procedure? Ask. Don't know how to calculate an important figure? Ask. Don't know the definition of a word or the purpose of a portion of a project? Friggin' ask already! Part of an intern is being willing to show what you don't know and be okay with that. 

 

3. Put your talented, fabulous, brilliant self out there!

The summer before this internship, I was a volunteer intern at Marshall, which is how I got my foot in the door. That summer, I received an email (along with every Marshall employee) about an event called Storytelling under the Stars, and I saw that the Todd May, the center director and an Auburn alum, would be speaking. I went in the hopes that it would be a good networking opportunity, and, man, was I right. Long story short, it was an event with several influential people from the Huntsville area telling a story to the theme of "coming home." Well... I entered my name to be the "wildcard storyteller" of the night, which meant I would tell a story during intermission if selected... which I was. So, I hopped on stage in front of several of Huntsville's elite, including other NASA employees, and told a story about when I, as the youngest member of my Space Camp team, was selected to be shuttle commander of our simulated mission, which is a big deal. My team actually won the Best Mission award out of dozens of other teams, and I was presented with an award by an astronaut. So freaking cool.

Anyway, after the story, I was pulled aside by the former CEO of Space Camp, current director of Aviation Challenge (a subset of Space Camp), Director May, a brilliant scientist on whose project I assisted, and a few other powerful people. Moral of the literal story? Take risks. Put your name in to be the wildcard storyteller. Make sure people know your name, even if you're "only an intern." You won't regret it.

 

4. Have some fun, and hang out with other interns.

Not only will hanging out with other interns provide even more beneficial connections, it's also one of the greatest stress-relievers you can have. Your internship may require you to move to a city you've never visited, and it can be overwhelming. Connecting with people going through the same things you are---hard classes, general college struggles, etc.---is one of the biggest benefits of being an intern. This past summer, we did things like skydiving, going to Six Flags, having a lake day, and going out every weekend. As important as it is to network with people who are full-timers, don't overlook the people around you. You'll make some of your best friends, and the best part is that they're interested in the same things you are and are probably quite like-minded. 

 

5. Capture your memories, whether it's through photos, a journal, or both.

You don't want to forget any of your time at your internship. Write down learning moments, personal struggles, breakthroughs, and memorable conversations/interactions/encounters. I kept all of my notebooks from my internship and leaf through them when I need inspiration. 

 

6. Don't give up on your dream, no matter what anyone says.

One engineer my first summer there scoffed when he found out I've always wanted to become an astronaut. He sarcastically wished me luck and told me he had been trying for years and hadn't been selected. Was that news to me, the odds of becoming an astronaut? Absolutely not. Will I give up on that dream? Absolutely not. Will I be okay with an alternate career path and a successful career even if that does not involve becoming an astronaut? Absolutely. I'd love to do many things, including teaching at the collegiate level or being an executive at an engineering company or director of a NASA center, with the engineering degree I will earn. Dream big, but have alternatives you'd also enjoy. There is nothing shameful in having big dreams.

I hope these tips will help you ladies excel in your career and be the boss that you are!

You've got it in you. Make sure everyone else knows it, too.

About The Author

I am a Computer Engineering sophomore at Auburn University. You'll see that I have a penchant for using puns, writing lists, giving advice, and talking about my personal college experiences (especially as a woman in STEM and former NASA intern!). I'm a huge fan of Crossfit and weight lifting, am a self-proclaimed coffee addict, and am a major outer space nerd.