Making Virtual Internships Work, Regardless of Location

February 2021
Cybersecurity Interns
College intern working from home on her computer.

The main objective of an internship is to learn about your field of choice by working alongside peers and colleagues. However, interning at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) National Cybersecurity Center of Excellence (NCCoE) in Rockville, Maryland, looked very different last year than in the past.

With staff from MITRE and NIST working virtually, the prospect of working remotely behind a computer seemed less than ideal. Nonetheless, eight NCCoE interns prevailed and received an immersive, hands-on experience—a victory unto itself.

Take that, 2020!

Meet the Interns

The NCCoE 2020 intern class was a mix of students seeking undergraduate and advanced degrees in IT and/or computer science from universities located all over the country.

Why intern at MITRE? Given the high demand for cybersecurity personnel, the group had their pick of companies. But they chose MITRE—and the opportunity to work in the public interest.

This was Colin Shea-Blymer's third internship with the NCCoE, so he was able to pick up projects he had worked on before. In fact, he credits his time at MITRE for helping him decide to pursue a Ph.D. at Oregon State.

"I feel like my work is having an impact," he says, "and I enjoy pursuing my education while working to make the world a better place."

The students all cited exposure to different tools and technologies as one of the perks of interning at the NCCoE. Gianna Ciuffetelli, graduate student at Purdue University Northwest, says, "Because I got to work with software that I was unfamiliar with, I gained a better understanding of how useful these tools can be in the professional world."

Ian Steinbrech, University of Iowa graduate, echoes that sentiment. "I didn't have a lot of experience working with Python, but I was able to figure out ways around normal processes. Instead of backing down, I embraced the challenge and learned from it."

Making the Adjustment to a Virtual Environment

Now in his third year as intern coordinator with fellow cybersecurity engineer Brian Johnson, MITRE's Joshua Klosterman is well versed in giving the interns a rich and substantial experience. However, managing a completely virtual program posed several new challenges.

Klosterman well understands the technical side of the job, but also places a high value on social activities such as game nights and weekly lunches.

He says, "Our interns were incredibly productive throughout the virtual environment, but communications are difficult when everything is virtual. You can't just stop by someone’s desk to talk to them. In the virtual world, communicating takes coordination and organization, especially when talking to a group." 

"We appreciate how hard our intern coordinators work to give their interns an optimal experience," says Angie Morris, manager for MITRE's Student Programs. "That is the most important thing for our interns. We want to ensure that they have impactful work and feel connected to their departments."

NCCoE interns could also get involved in activities and events offered to all interns throughout MITRE.  There was a kickoff celebration, weekly meet-ups called "The Intern 25," a mentoring program, and an intern project expo where they could showcase their work. Interns could also take advantage of three Learning Tracks—in artificial intelligence, position/navigation/timing systems or cyber warfare.

Former intern Daniel Hoffman, who is now earning a Master of Business Administration at the University of Maryland, refused to let the virtual environment become a social or physical impediment.

"I challenged myself to set up virtual coffee chats to learn more about working at MITRE," he says. "Although I haven't met in person 99 percent of the people I encountered, I still felt comfortable working and talking with them.

"People were incredibly helpful and responsive."

Looking Ahead to the Future of Internships  

The NCCoE 2021 intern class is in the process of being hired, but it's anyone's guess as to whether they will work on-site or virtually. Asked if he would recommend making virtual internships a permanent offering, Klosterman said, "We prefer having our interns work at the center so they can engage in certain activities.

"But if the only way someone can participate is virtually, after this experience, we certainly know how to make it work for everyone."  

—by Mary Raguso & Thomas Walters

Interested in becoming a MITRE intern? View our job openings or learn about our student programs.