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Despite pandemic, high school intern works with USACE to complete project

Published April 16, 2020
Sally Sydnor, a graduating senior at Handley High School in Winchester, Va., works on her U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Internship project from her home in Winchester. Sydnor has been collaborating remotely with mentors from USACE's Transatlantic Middle East District to complete the project due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sally Sydnor, a graduating senior at Handley High School in Winchester, Va., works on her U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Internship project from her home in Winchester. Sydnor has been collaborating remotely with mentors from USACE's Transatlantic Middle East District to complete the project due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Intern Sally Syndor (top right) works on a team with her U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District mentors during an Engineer Week competition in February 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to finish her internship remotely.

Intern Sally Syndor (top right) works on a team with her U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District mentors during an Engineer Week competition in February 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to finish her internship remotely.

Although COVID-19 virus has led to the cancellation of many of the traditional high school rites of passage around the country, a passion for engineering and an assist from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District (TAM) helped high school senior Sally Sydnor maintain some sense of normalcy during a final year of high school that has been anything but.

Sydnor was in the middle of an engineering internship with the district when schools closed for the year.  With her senior year unexpectedly coming to an end, Sydnor decided to see if there was a way she could continue her engineering project.

“Once schools began to close and sports came to an abrupt stop, I didn't want another thing in my life to end. As a high school senior, this internship is really important to me. Now, without school, sports, and other school activities, I have more time to focus on my project, which I see as a silver lining to the current situation,” Sydnor said.

Her project involves designing the architectural and structural components of a small residential building. This includes analyzing different loads on the structure, determining risk category, and designing the framing and foundation of the building. She also tried to incorporate sustainable design practices into the project. Determined to continue, she reached out to her mentors in TAM to see if there was a way forward.

Angie Nieves-Viruet, a TAM architect who had been working with Sydnor on designing her project, worked with her on a transition to working with everyone remotely making sure she had access to video chat, screen sharing and other tools to make certain she had what she needed to continue collaborating on the project.

As Sydnor transitioned from the architecture portion of her project into the engineering, several engineers in the district stepped up to help her.

Garrison Myer, the district’s intern program coordinator and a civil engineer said it was a labor of love on the part of the engineers involved.  

“She won’t get school credit,” said Myer. “This is something that she has opted to do in order to learn more about engineering and better herself. Every participant in it, and we have at least one from every discipline in engineering, is a volunteer to the program.  This means that on days where they spend time with the student those volunteers are staying late or coming in early to make up for the time.  It has been wonderful to see the engineering division rally around this program and to volunteer their time and effort into helping the next generation of engineers.”

Myer noted that in some ways, working remotely might actually benefit Sydnor as it made her work more independently.

“It’s important to note that these projects aren’t assigned to the students.  We try to give them as much creative license for picking their project while still keeping it in the realm of possibility,” Myer said. “Since we can no longer meet three times a week, we had to adapt the intern program to a telework environment.  Through scheduled check-ups, we check on project status and answer questions but Sally works hard on her own to do as much as possible for the project, then comes to the engineers for direction when she finds something she can’t solve.”

Sydnor, who is slated to start at the University of Virginia in the fall, said the internship has solidified her choice of an engineering career but opened up her mind to the various types of engineering she might want to pursue.

“When I applied to college last fall, I thought with some certainty that a civil engineering degree was the right path, and it still might be.  But after the first couple of weeks of the internship, I came to the realization that I didn't know exactly what each type of engineering entails. It was really exciting too because now I have a lot more to discover in the years to come. I'm still not completely sure about what type of engineering I want to pursue, but I think any work that the Army Corps of Engineers does is something I will be geared towards in the future,” said Sydnor.

Myer said that sentiment is one of the reasons the internship program is so important to him.

“There is a  White House directive that attracting, recruiting and retaining the best STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) professionals possible is key to building the force of the future that will ensure technical superiority in a complex world,” Myer said. “We need to ensure that qualified individuals get the training and experience they need and are aware of the opportunities available.  This all starts with school aged kids.  If we can get them interested in STEM and show them that it is a fulfilling line of work, we can get qualified individuals to join our (work) force.”

Sydnor said despite the unexpected challenges, the internship accomplished what she hoped it would.

“I have really enjoyed seeing the day-to-day life of an engineer. The work at the Army Corps of Engineers is very collaborative and interesting. It has helped me realize the magnitude of what an engineer can do. I think for someone entering school to become an engineer, that first-hand experience is really special and I am so grateful to (USACE) for this opportunity and their willingness to continue the internship given the circumstances of a pandemic.”