Geography and urban planning students share advice from summer internships

For many students in Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, learning goes on all year-round. This past summer, a growing number of urban planning and geography students used their time outside the classroom to get ahead, build new skills and obtain new experiences to advance their careers. 

“It’s extremely encouraging and wonderful to know and hear about,” said Erin Murphy, internship and career coordinator for the school, who tracks student internships. “While participating in an internship, students are exploring their creative thinking, building professional development skills and showing a desire to put forth what they’ve learned in their education.” 

From remote positions with private firms to destination internships across the globe, we spoke to four students ranging across ASU’s geography and urban planning degree programs about their recent internships, what they’ve learned and how it’s preparing them for their future professions. 

Editor’s note: Students’ responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Meghan Stell, ASU Online geography, climatology senior 

Meghan Stell always dreamed about being an atmospheric scientist, but as an online student balancing a full-time job with multiple life commitments, she didn’t believe she had the experience to make that possible. Stell was recently selected for and completed a highly competitive summer internship with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, where she produced her own independent research and scientific paper. The internship, she says, has given her the skills and confidence to make her dreams a reality.

Question: Can you tell us about your internship? 

Answer: My internship was with the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR). UCAR runs an internship program called SOARS (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research), an undergraduate-to-graduate bridge program designed to help students who come from backgrounds that are typically underrepresented in the atmospheric sciences, so women and people of color. It's an opportunity to get us involved in research. It was a 10-week intensive research internship. 

Q: What tasks did you do with SOARS? 

A: I conducted an independent research project that was guided by my mentor team. It was titled, “Bringing Water to the West: Microphysics and Dynamics of Orographic Clouds Influenced by Atmospheric Rivers.” 

I was looking at how atmospheric rivers influence the microphysics and dynamics of mountain-formed clouds in Idaho. By combining data from two different field projects, one looking at detecting atmospheric rivers through integrated water vapor transport, and another field project that took place in Idaho in the Payette River Basin looking at the microphysics and dynamics of orographic clouds or mountain forced clouds. I was looking at how atmospheric rivers impacted those clouds.

It was an amazing experience. I was able to produce a 20-page paper and a science poster that I’ll be presenting at the American Meteorological Society conference in January, and I also gave an oral presentation to the whole group. It was an incredible experience. Absolutely life-changing.

Q: This internship was “life-changing”? In what ways? 

A: I’m a nontraditional student. I'm going to be 35 in a few months, and I've gone through a lot of life. I also am working a full-time job to put myself through school. Being an online student, I don't get the traditional interaction with my professors and peers, and I really was afraid that in applying to my PhD next year, I wasn't going to appear to be a good candidate because I didn't have the traditional resume that most incoming PhD students have. 

This internship showed me that I can do this. I am smart enough. I do have the drive. I do have that science mind to be able to think critically about a research question. And it really gave me the confidence that I did not have that I can do science. I can be an atmospheric scientist.

Q: What advice would you give to students seeking internships? 

A: I just want to encourage students that if you see an internship but you don't think you can get in or that you’re not smart enough or that you don’t have the right background — just do it. Take that leap of faith. I did, and because of it, I feel like I'm on this amazing trajectory. Back in May, when this whole thing started, I never dreamed that I would have the confidence to be a scientist as I do now, and that the doors that are opening because of this experience would ever open for me. I would encourage students to really believe in themselves. I believe in them.

John Demcko, urban planning junior

John Demcko has always wanted to travel and intern abroad, but obstacles around COVID-19 travel made it challenging. Demcko found a way to make the best of the situation and get international work experience by participating in an internship program through ASU’s partnership with Virtual Global Internship (College Study Abroad). He worked with planners in a private consulting firm in Dublin this past summer, giving him new perspectives and experiences into the private sector of urban planning. 

Q: Can you tell us about your internship experience? 

A: I worked virtually with a private planning consultancy, Armstrong Planning Limited, based out of Dublin. I learned how the private sector of urban planning worked, especially in the Irish context. 

Q: Can you describe for us some of the tasks you did? 

A: I was researching policies regarding the preservation and conservation of historical buildings and structures. One of the tasks was to compare policy evolutions between general plans and versions regarding the preservation and conservation of the built heritage.

Q: How was it interning for an international urban planning firm? 

A: At my internship, I had to overcome ambiguity due to a cultural norm, but by asking a lot of questions of my supervisor to clarify the tasks that I was given, it gave me a better scope. For example, I originally thought that the scope of a project was very wide, which would include all heritage, built heritage and also the natural environment; but after asking, I was able to narrow it down to cultural heritage, not the natural environment, then eventually to strictly built heritage. 

Q: What did you enjoy most about your internship?

A: I really enjoyed getting a very good sense of the private sector of planning, and my favorite task was performing a site appraisal for a given proposed development site in Ireland with the conservation of historical buildings and structures in mind. 

Especially in the context of working internationally, I learned it’s important to understand the context that you'll be working within, the people you'll be working with, their upbringing and their culture, because as urban planners, we have to plan specifically based on what the community's culture or background is.

Q: What advice do you have for other students seeking urban planning internships? 

A: Try all sectors of urban planning and see which one fits you the best. It not only applies to planning but it could also apply to other career fields like GIS (geographic information science).

Robert Downs, ASU Online geography senior, GIS certificate 

As a first sergeant in the U.S. Army, Robert Downs interned this past summer with the Army's geospatial intelligence battalion, assisting with courseware development and the geospatial technology training of soldiers overseas. Downs, who has nearly a decade of experience in geospatial intelligence, is quick to express his gratitude for the career insight he gained and the valuable connections he forged within the ASU community and beyond through his internship and the school’s internship class. 

Q: Can you tell us about your internship experience? 

A: I interned with the U.S. Army's geospatial intelligence battalion. The particular branch that I interned with is called TREX, or training and exercise, and their mission is to provide worldwide geospatial training. They go all over the world teaching geospatial courses. 

During my internship, there were two parts. The first half of my training, I helped to build a pilot program for their geospatial analytics course. I built the MTI (moving target indicators) section. I also put together a couple briefs. 

Then in the second part, I was selected to go to Germany for two weeks for MITS (military intelligence training strategy) in one section specific to geospatial intelligence. I was there as a senior coach and mentor at the 173rd Military Intelligence Company. My role there was to help them get their workstation set up and coach and mentor them through the production processes. 

Q: Did anything surprise you about your internship? 

A: This was my first opportunity with courseware development. Building the pilot program was a lot of fun, but I quickly realized that I do not like courseware development. That's just not something that I enjoy. But it was definitely a learning point. 

I feel fairly strong in moving target indicators to see where moving objects are on the ground, so I made a course teaching how to read the different signatures of Doppler shift effects and how those different platforms work. I honestly thought I'd enjoy it a little more than what I did. I decided that's not a career path I want to go down. This was a good opportunity for me to test that and check off that block. 

Also, I made a lot of connections and was able to utilize this process to go through my resume. I’ve submitted my resume to a few places and was selected by Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) for a full-time position after my retirement (from the Army in 2022). 

Q: What did you like most about your internship? 

A: The ability to travel to Germany. It was my first time traveling to Germany in this context where I actually had some free time. I took in all the sights and wanted to email Dr. (Ronald) Dorn. I loved all of his classes. I saw a couple dormant volcanoes, and I got little videos of some of the rock structures. Also, I saw some historic sites. I was able to take my wife on this internship, and getting to work with the soldiers and teach them some of the things that I've learned throughout my career was rewarding. 

Q: Why do you believe internships are important? 

A: It's a great way to network. I always say networking is probably one of the biggest pluses that came out of it. Not only did I network with individuals that are in my organization, but there were other ASU students in my internship class that lived here in (Washington) D.C. We were able to connect in our discussion boards and eventually give each other tours of our facilities. It's great to see other students that are out there, and now we have this huge network. Synergies are great; they make things happen. 

Q: What advice would you give to other students? 

A: As an older student (I'm 38; I'll be 39 when I graduate), the opportunity that ASU Online has  provided me is great. I'd say just never give up. Keep pursuing your goals. I was homeless twice growing up. This opportunity and the ability to really press on shows that anything's possible. I'm about to graduate summa cum laude in December. Don't give up no matter where you come from. You can get this done.

Vidul Dasan, urban planning senior, minor in sustainability 

As the spring 2021 semester ended, Vidul Dasan knew he wanted to make the most of his summer by getting valuable planning experience. Dasan reached out to one of his urban planning professors, seeking opportunities to get involved with faculty research. His proactive approach paid off. A native of Seattle, Dasan worked alongside Hue-Tam Jamme, assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, to conduct research on transportation habits, infrastructure and history for his home city and two other cities around the globe. 

Q: Can you tell us about your internship experience? 

A: I worked on a summer research project on transportation signatures with Professor Hue-Tam Jamme. 

Q: For those of us unfamiliar, what are transportation signatures? 

A: Transportation signatures are signatures of what people who live in the city use to get around the city. The project looked at three different cities, and we explored why people used that method in each city. We looked at Trivandrum, India; Venice, Italy; and Seattle, here in Washington. Looking at the city's history and geography allows us to piece together what happened in the city to get to where it is today and why people use the forms of transportation they used. 

Q: What did your day-to-day research look like?

A: I researched a lot of historical documents, not just for the transportation aspect but for the history of the city as well. It gave me a good idea of why the transportation looks the way it does and what has happened in the city's past to influence what transportation might look like today. 

For example, with Seattle, there's a city about 45 minutes south of us called Tacoma that was a destination point for the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S., and as a result, a lot of people who would take the railroad either moved up to Seattle or down into Portland, and that really played a key role in accelerating the growth. 

Research was a mix of looking at different types of sources, such as Google Scholar and blog posts, as well as local news and national news sources. Then I combined the different aspects of all of them to get a complete picture of what transportation looks like today in the different cities. I created a slide deck with all the information for all the different cities; altogether, it was around 60 or 70 slides.

Q: What did you like most about the internship? 

A: I really like how it was structured. It was just me and Professor Hue-Tam Jamme. Going into the internship, we had a pretty good timeline and road map of what deadlines were and what we wanted to get done. It was really up to me to find the time to work on the project and to meet those deadlines. 

Also, it was a really good learning experience. You can learn about these topics in a broader sense in a classroom, but at the end of the day, urban planning is really a regional job and field. Even though two cities could be similar in a lot of respects, due to their history and what the people living there want, they can be very different. This research project definitely helped me see that. 

Q: What would you say to other students unsure about pursuing an internship?

A: I only have good things to say about it. Like any project or work, it will take time. It's something you have to focus on and work on, but that’s how people grow — by getting out of your comfort zone and trying something new.

Some parts might be difficult or confusing in the moment, but by the end of it, you will have grown a little bit and learned something new you've never quite thought of before. You can make new connections as well. It's definitely a good experience, and I couldn't recommend it more. 

For ASU students interested in learning more about potential internship opportunities and careers in the geography, urban planning and GIS fields, the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning will be holding its annual “Career Navigator” career discovery event on Oct. 20. The school will be hosting 30-plus government and private agencies to showcase the diverse opportunities available to students who gain the important skills and knowledge that are available through geography, GIS and urban planning studies. For more information visit: https://asuevents.asu.edu/content/career-discovery-%E2%80%94-career-navigator-%E2%80%94-explore-career-opportunities-geography-gis-and-urban?eventDate=2021-10-20T15%3A00