How to Seize Unexpected Opportunities and Make the Most of Your Internship

Viru Agrawal
How to Seize Unexpected Opportunities and Make the Most of Your Internship

1. Expect the Unexpected

Near the end of 2014, I was home on break and campus life seemed as distant mentally as it was physically. In fact, that was my goal, as I was in the midst of numerous transitions in my career – from adjusting to a new position as a Director of Special Events for the Illini Union Board to joining the planning committee for the 2016 Institute of Industrial Engineers Regional Conference. Further, I was intending to spend the summer productively on campus, so it was likely I wouldn’t be seeing my family for a year. One evening, I booted my laptop to email my advisor about a course I was interested in and found an unexpected message in my inbox.

2. Choose Based on Position, Not on Paycheck

A brief email with a PDF attachment that turned out to be an offer letter for a Continuous Improvement Engineer Intern position, an assignment which exemplifies the values I held close as an Industrial Engineer. To put it concisely, it didn’t take long to set aside my other offer and commit to this one.

Fast forward a break and a semester; my roommate sipped on coffee as I munched on a chocolate-chip muffin, wearing new hard-toe boots, unsure what to expect from my first day at G&W Electric Company. My brain was struggling to process mixed advice while wishfully mapping an ideal internship experience. My phone buzzed – our Uber was here. It didn’t take long to slide through suburban traffic, and before I knew it I was sitting in the Westinghouse training room, combining forces with 24 other interns to stare down the front wall. Punctually, the HR team entered, encouraging us to help ourselves to the breakfast that was waiting at the back of the room as they walked us through the day’s training schedule, signaling the official start of my internship.

3. Maximize and Track

It wasn’t long before I felt like a part of the organization, and the accompanying routine felt like a part of me. My supervisor and department had been pushing me to my capabilities ever since I completed my initial summer project – scheduled to last 3 months – in just under 2 days. Although it was a seemingly simple area layout, the sheer detail involved in developing a realistic proposal forced me to realize that I had only scratched the surface of being an Industrial Engineer, a true case of the more I knew, the less I knew. Before long, I had worked with the Director of Continuous Improvement on field action kits, updated assembly procedures and been assigned to pioneer an exhaustive full-plant layout with no sign of slowing. I was placed on increasingly more experienced teams with different departments on a wide variety of projects.

As the tasks accumulated, my supervisor passed a seemingly impervious piece of advice – to make a list of my projects this summer – without which I may not have been able to write this today. This is about when my largest project of the summer hit – a material handling investigation to efficiently locate and kit frame parts during the assembly process. As my teammates and I promptly discovered through considerable data analysis, the problem was larger than even our supervisors knew, with annual losses touching 6 digits. The project took a turn, and we diligently began hunting for solutions from various suppliers and conferences, availing in a final proposed solution with an almost irrefutable 2 month return on investment! Needless to say, the executives loved our report, and this project lives on my résumé till date.

However, the summer was far from over as my supervisor wished me to take his spot in a Weld booth Kaizen event in an effort to practice the ever beloved 5S+1 (Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize, Sustain, Safety) toolkit. After almost a week of painting, fabricating and retrofitting with the Manufacturing Engineering and Welding departments, our first ever world-class welding booth was a sight to behold. As you may agree from the above photo, it wasn’t a surprise that the company supported a 1 month rollout schedule for the rest of the facility.

Less than 2 weeks from now, I would be on a bus to my new room in Urbana, I thought, as update emails from my campus Program Director rolled in. I was set to tie up loose ends from the Summer Intern Newsletter to my final project. This was possibly my most exciting project, as I was to operate independently to facilitate the reorganization and remodeling of a work cell in order to accommodate more efficient parts flow and an all-new, fully-automated glue dispensing robot! I was required to independently cooperate with multiple departments and suppliers while consistently carrying out supporting tasks – including personnel supervision and equipment installation. In my mind, this was the ideal culmination of my experience, along with a testament to the knowledge and faith I had earned in the past

4. Maintain Connections

I contemplated the end of my summer at G&W as I looked down at my chocolate-chip muffin. I was sitting in an almost identical spot a few months ago, but understood this muffin much better now. It fascinated me that even a muffin would go through a multifaceted manufacturing process saturated with engineers, simply to be consumed with maximum satisfaction. Further, I realized how much I had been processed over the past summer, in my passion and voracity for Industrial Engineering. I mulled over not recognizing myself when I graduate or how the campus life I was returning to would overhaul my system of living.

Nonetheless, I knew I would stay in touch for updates on my projects’ sustenance and that I was connected to a fair number of G&W Employees through LinkedIn; isn’t that a victory in itself?

5. Take Photos!

Yes, it’s that part of the post, where a misty-eyed writer urges you to cherish each moment and gather multiple memory cards worth of selfies, but remember, memories can be the best way to network and reconnect with old peers after life takes you down different paths. Alternatively, they might come in handy if you find yourself writing an internship blog!