KINGSTON, R.I. — September 30, 2020 — When the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread in the northeastern United States in early March, schools transitioned to remote learning. Classrooms went virtual and hands-on. Face-to-face learning opportunities, such as internships and research conducted in laboratories, were deemed too risky.
“Almost all of my friends had internships lined up for the summer that were either cancelled, turned into remote internships or shortened in length,” said Natalie Wilcox, a senior at the University of Rhode Island who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
As excited as Wilcox was about the summer internship she arranged at the civil and environmental engineering firm Langan in New York City, she expected it wouldn’t happen, considering the circumstances.
“Given that New York was the epicenter of the pandemic in March and April, I was almost completely certain my internship would be cancelled,” recalled Wilcox. “However, I kept in touch with the human resources representative throughout the process. It wasn’t until May when I found out my internship would take place, but it would be shortened to two weeks.”
Wilcox’s internship being abbreviated turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It gave her time to complete a second in-person internship at a construction company on Long Island, New York named Haugland Group, before returning to URI for the fall semester.
Since Wilcox is from Malverne, New York, a village on the south shore of Long Island, both internships were minutes away.
Short, But Valuable Experience
The geotechnical engineering internship at Langan was originally scheduled to take place over 12 weeks. While it was impossible to squeeze a full summer’s worth of learning into two weeks, Wilcox accomplished a great deal.
The first week consisted of intense training in AutoCAD, a computer-aided design and drafting software application, and in federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations.
In the second week, Wilcox visited many active construction sites in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx.
“The most exciting thing I experienced was a massive excavation project at the American Museum of Natural History,” said Wilcox. “I learned about shallow and deep foundation design, and I witnessed the soil and rock sub-grade.”
Wilcox related what she learned in the classroom and lab at URI to the work taking place all around her.
“Everything I learned in my geotechnical engineering lecture came rushing back to me,” said Wilcox. “Since the excavation was 25 feet below the streets of New York, I could clearly see the different layers of soil and rock and how the bedrock in that area of Manhattan was valley-like in nature. That was something I would have never imagined.”
In Wilcox’s geotechnical lab at URI, she often ran tests on soils for hypothetical situations and then come up with recommendations to improve conditions.
“One test I ran was a direct shear test on soils for a retaining wall and then I had to determine if the conditions were suitable,” said Wilcox. “I recommended soil nailing or anchored tie backs to improve stability under those circumstances. It was exciting to then see the tie backs applied in real-world projects in New York.”
Good Impression Pays Off
When Wilcox learned that her internship at Langan would be reduced to two weeks, she immediately reached out to her previous supervisor at the company she worked for last summer.
“I did an internship last summer at JFK Airport for the construction company Haugland Group,” said Wilcox. “Fortunately, my supervisor welcomed me back with open arms.”
This time around, Wilcox was assigned to a taxiway paving project at LaGuardia Airport and a construction job at the Walt Whitman Bridge, among other projects.
“I worked a 36-hour job over a weekend at LaGuardia,” said Wilcox. “There was a ton of planning that went into it. I sat in on the meetings that preceded the operation. I joined the team during the first overnight shift and assisted the superintendent with the trucking schedule for the milling and paving operation and organized the timesheets and sign-in sheets.”
The work at the Walt Whitman Bridge also took place in the evening.
“My boss asked if I wanted to go out at night to witness the installation of steel girders,” said Wilcox. “I enjoy being out in the field no matter what time of day it is, so I jumped at the chance. I was able to watch steel construction take place for the first time.”
Wilcox was please to work for the Haugland Group for a second summer.
“The projects I worked on at Haugland only account for half the experience,” said Wilcox. “It was just as much about the people I worked with, and that wasn’t limited to the engineering department. Haugland Group treats their employees like a family, one that I feel lucky to be a part of.”
Two Internships, Two Perspectives
Combining two internships not only enabled Wilcox to fill the entire summer with a great learning experience, but it provided two different perspectives of civil engineering.
“I’m conflicted on which aspect of civil engineering to pursue,” stated Wilcox. “Engineering design would let me exercise the technical knowledge I’ve learned in school and later allow me to draft my own projects. On the other hand, engineering construction has given me the ability to work alongside the people who plan and execute the actual building of the projects and witness the work unfold before my eyes.”
Wilcox appreciates that two companies were willing to accept her as an intern, especially since many of her peers weren’t so lucky this summer.
“I’m so grateful that Langan was willing to take me on and that I was able to return to Haugland Group for a second summer,” said Wilcox. “I learned so much about construction management and the role of a project engineer in construction and geotechnical engineering. I also made a lot of connections in construction and engineering design.”