From left to right: Valeria Vigueras and Denise Sheperson
From left to right: Valeria Vigueras and Denise Sheperson
Image: Penn State

Internships help engineering students determine career paths

An internship at Phoenix Contact proved to Penn State Harrisburg student Valeria Vigueras that electrical engineering is the right career choice for her.

It was not always obvious. She felt she wasn’t good at math. That's what led her to a criminal justice degree, with the thought of going to law school. But a stint working at a law firm convinced her she didn't really like it.

“I just didn't feel it,” she said. “But I felt I was not smart enough for engineering because math was challenging. But once I got older, I thought, 'just give it a shot.'”

Vigueras credits her professors at Penn State Harrisburg with helping her tackle the academics. The classes are small, she said. She got plenty of tutoring.

“I love my professors,” she said. “They are all very caring. They're just great, great professors.”

They also helped her find the internship at Phoenix Contact in Middletown, which makes electronic products like cables and connectors.

AB Shafaye, chair of the electrical and electrical engineering technology programs in Penn State Harrisburg’s School of Science, Engineering and Technology, said 77 engineering students have earned internship credits in the past year, while many secure internships without registering for credit. In its current format, the internship program began in 2003 and now has collected contacts from 245 companies interested in hiring interns, 48 in the last year alone. Most of the internships are paid, Shafaye added.

“A lot of internships lead to full time jobs,” he said, “and even if they do not, students find it easier to get full-time work, with higher salaries and better opportunities. They also get hands-on feedback into what they think they are interested in. Sometimes they find out what they don't want to do, which is also valuable information.”

What Vigueras loves about her internship is the chance to see her work turn into an actual product she can hold in her hands. She designed some cables using the company's software and made the schematics. They are now being manufactured.

“Before, I had knowledge. Now, I feel I have a skill,” she said. “It feels good.”

Her experiences also have led her to her ultimate dream assignment – a commission with the U.S. Air Force. She applied last August and was accepted in the fall.

Vigueras was born and raised in Mexico City, but moved to the U.S. her senior year in high school. She became a citizen three years ago.

“My dreams are to serve this country which has given me so much,” she said.

Vigueras said her course of study at Penn State Harrisburg “was very difficult but a lot more fulfilling that anything I ever did...The internship made me realize how much I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

Denise Sheperson, another electrical engineering student due to graduate in May, also found that her degree and a military career go hand in hand. She is a five-year veteran of the Marine Corps, where she worked as a ground radio repairperson.

“I chose electrical engineering because it was the closest to what I did in the Marine Corps,” she said.

She is now interning at BAE Systems in York, a company that makes defense equipment. As a product safety engineer, she makes sure vehicles are as safe and user friendly as possible.

“The internship helps me grow as an engineer,” she said. “It makes me understand why all those classes I took are worthwhile.”

She said her professors at Penn State Harrisburg made her feel welcome.

“As a female engineer and a veteran, I was kind of a unicorn within the school,” she said.

Shafaye helped her secure her internship job, where she feels she is an important part of the product safety team.

She is hoping for a permanent job with BAE Systems and has also applied for a position in Alaska.

She encouraged other engineering students to complete internships. “It makes you feel that what you are doing is worthwhile,” she said.