NIU Voices: Internships help students learn beyond campus

Only weeks after graduating from Northern Illinois University with a degree in industrial and systems engineering, Alex Hurtado is settling into her job as a software consultant at IBM. She is part of a team working on Blockchain, a new product many believe will revolutionize how we conduct business transactions.

Taking on that sort of responsibility might make some recent graduates nervous, but not Alex. She feels up to the challenge, not only because of her coursework, but also because she took exceptional advantage of the many opportunities NIU offers students for hands-on learning beyond the classroom.

While at NIU, Alex spent her summers working internships. Her first was at a company that makes GPS units, where she helped streamline the way they code maps. Another was with an auto parts manufacturer, where she created a $150 process that saves the company $125,000 a year. Last summer, she worked at Disney corporate offices in Manhattan, where she helped move ABC News into “the cloud.”

At each stop along the way, she not only honed the “hard skills” that will make her a valuable contributor at IBM, but also the “soft skills” that have allowed her to hit the ground running, working as a collaborative member of her team.

Alex’s story is an extraordinary example of how NIU provides students with opportunities to prepare for success after graduation, but she is hardly alone. More than 1,000 NIU students secure internships each year, whether through our Career Services Department or, like Alex, through the extensive networks developed by faculty in their colleges. Some work for Big Four accounting firms, while others are enrolled in corporate training programs for companies like Kohl’s or Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Some even spend time at federal agencies such as the FBI or DEA. Each year a few work with members of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Students also find internships through specialized programs on campus. For instance, 12 NIU students recently returned from an intensive month-long trip to Mexico through our Global Internship and Leadership program. Immersed in the culture, they spent three weeks engaged in economic and community development, and one week in an intensive leadership seminar. They gained not only valuable experience that will help them in their careers, but also tremendous insights into how others live and a deeper understanding of the global community.

Of course, internships are just one way NIU students spend their summers preparing for success after graduation. Right now, about a dozen students are on campus working with faculty to develop original research through our Summer Research Opportunities Program; dozens more are working as assistants in labs on campus or at places like Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory; still others are working alongside professors on archeological digs or conducting fieldwork in far corners of the globe. Many more students are studying abroad, furthering their education and learning how to be citizens of the world.

These are just some of the ways NIU strives to provide students with opportunities to learn beyond campus. Each represents a different route to our ultimate goal: putting NIU students on the pathway to a successful future.

• Northern Illinois University Acting President Lisa Freeman fondly recalls her summer internships working with practicing veterinarians in rural New York and Arkansas, and conducting research at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine.

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