A new scholarship program offered by Boeing at Virginia Tech is helping take the stress out of early career decisions by giving students a lot of runway.

Designed specifically for sophomores, the Boeing Accelerated Leadership Program (ALP) features two paid summer internships, tuition and housing coverage for junior and senior year, and at least three years of full-time employment with Boeing after graduation.

The program’s first cohort, which included seven students from Virginia Tech, recently completed summer internships at Boeing facilities around the country. They were joined by peers from Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Washington.

Audrey Abadilla, a senior in mechanical engineering from Corvallis, Oregon, knew in high school that she wanted to pursue a career in aviation. Soe Wunna, a junior in aerospace engineering from Sterling, Virginia, had similar dreams for his field of study. Both applied to the ALP last May, establishing an early working relationship with the global aerospace company that has brought their aspirations into clear focus.

Robert Smith, a senior technical fellow at Boeing and professor of practice at Virginia Tech, views this early touchpoint as an opportunity to increase employee retention and inspire a more well-rounded workforce. In the traditional job-search model that uses graduation as a launch pad, companies may screen entry-level applicants based on GPA or major with very little in-depth interaction.

“In the first two years, a lot of turnover happens everywhere because there’s just not a good match,” said Smith. “So how do we get a better match?”

Virginia Tech student visits the Museum of Flight in Seattle
Ashlei Davis visited the Museum of Flight in Seattle as part of a Boeing Accelerated Leadership Program group event this summer. Photo courtesy of Ashlei Davis.

Ready for lift-off

As part of the leadership program, students intern at one of Boeing’s sites for two summer sessions of 10 to 12 weeks each. This past summer, the 21 interns also took special trips to Southern California and Seattle to tour Boeing facilities, attend leadership workshops, and engage with top executives.

Wunna and fellow aerospace engineering junior Abrar Syed, who also hails from Northern Virginia, worked at Boeing’s airplane assembly facility in Charleston, South Carolina, home of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Wunna worked on optimizing mechanical assembly, while Syed contributed to research and development.

In the facility’s Engineering Design Center, which handles advanced projects that are just getting off the ground, Syed enjoyed learning about Boeing’s commercial sector. He designed a few parts, in addition to completing production design analysis.

Ashlei Davis, a junior in computer science from Stafford, Virginia, worked in the software department at Maritime Undersea in Herndon, Virginia.

Abadilla prototyped new forms of refrigeration for airplane galleys at Boeing’s Everett, Washington, production facility, the largest in the world. While making her design, she experienced quality issues with standard interior panels, so she sought help from a colleague, who introduced her to plastic designed custom inserts.

"It was really interesting to just use my resources and learn about a new feature,” said Abadilla. “Then, also to customize that feature in basically the same week was so crazy."

Student interns visit a restaurant in Long Beach, California.
Abrar Syed (at far right) and Sam Garver (at center) share a meal with University of Washington student interns during a Boeing Accelerated Leadership Program trip to Long Beach, California, this summer. Photo courtesy of Abrar Syed.

Hokie win-win

In many ways, interning for Boeing has complemented the education these students are receiving at Virginia Tech. Students take technical knowledge learned in the classroom, apply it as members of the Boeing workforce, and then return to school with a greater understanding of project management. Abadilla has already been making real-world connections in her fall course on aircraft engines and gas turbines.

"After working for Boeing, now I sit in that class and sometimes I'll say stuff and I’m like, 'Oh my gosh, I saw that,'” Abadilla said. “And it's amazing to have that feeling in class, because usually it happens the other way, where you're in the industry and you're like, 'Oh, I learned that in my class.'"

Syed has realized the importance not just of mastering technical skills, but also of maximizing the productivity of a diverse, multidisciplinary workforce.

“After seeing how many people it takes to even do one thing, bringing that back to Virginia Tech, when I work on a project, that’s what I always keep in mind,” said Syed. “You need a lot of different people to work on anything.”

Syed hopes to integrate components of his summer internship project at Boeing into his senior design project at Virginia Tech next year, essentially jump-starting his unique contributions to industry. He also is considering Tech’s Accelerated Master’s Degree Program to further establish his technical skills. In a special case, Abadilla is already pursuing her master’s degree as part of that program. Having entered the ALP as a junior rather than a sophomore, she will apply her second year of Boeing’s tuition coverage toward graduate school.

Exploring new horizons

Flexibility, and exploration, has been a major hallmark of the leadership program during its infancy. Several students said Boeing mentors encouraged them to consider new internship locations for next summer — not because the experience had gone sour, but because the program lends itself to experiencing an array of company offerings.

“Those that worked in Charleston this summer can decide they want to go work in Washington state. Or they worked production and they want to go work research and technology,” said Smith. “There are opportunities to go do multiple different things.”

Davis, on the advice of one of her Boeing mentors, decided not to lock herself into a specific concentration this year. Instead, she decided to explore her interests in computer science and beyond. She is currently taking a pottery class at the YMCA at Virginia Tech, something she had always wanted to do. Likewise, Wunna values the increased emphasis on learning experiences rather than conformity to a traditional formula of success.

“It’s really nice because now I can really commit the rest of my college career to learning rather than only worrying about grades or ways to bolster my resume,” Wunna said.

Having tuition and housing paid for by Boeing also reduces the students’ stress levels, allowing them to redirect their finances and their energy. Davis appreciates the chance to be more independent and rely less on her parents for financial help. She previously worked campus jobs as a dining hall manager and building manager but now focuses solely on her work for Boeing. Syed hopes to get a head-start on saving his earnings since he won’t be saddled with large student loans.

“I think financially it does take that burden off you, and you can invest when you’re a lot younger,” said Syed. “Having zero debt is huge.”


Boeing leaders and all 21 student interns gather in El Segundo, California
Boeing leaders and all 21 ALP members gathered in El Segundo, California, this past summer. The program drew students from Virginia Tech, the University of Washington, and Washington University in St. Louis. Photo courtesy of Audrey Abadilla.

Flying to new heights

Now that the students have returned to campus, they continue to work part-time hours for Boeing. Their activities range from reviewing data for their summer projects to performing outreach as Boeing student ambassadors, helping to feed the pipeline of new talent by attending information sessions and career fairs. 

In describing their experiences, the students agreed that securing financial assistance and a guaranteed job after graduation has increased their motivation within their fields and decreased their stress levels. 

"I just feel a lot more freedom to explore my interests both within CS [computer science] and just outside of it,” said Davis. “It’s knowing that the finish line has already been crossed. Or there’s at least something at the end of the finish line. I know I just have to make it there.” 

Applications are being accepted through Oct. 2 for the program’s next class. In its second year, the program has expanded its reach to three other universities: Tuskegee University, the University of Southern California, and the University of South Carolina.

Although the pool of applicants has widened, Smith recognizes the important role of Virginia Tech in developing innovative ways for Boeing to better prepare students for the workforce.

“Through Boeing’s collaboration with the university, we are developing better connections with the students that bring awareness of what Boeing can offer in alignment with what the students really want to achieve as they move forward in their careers,” said Smith. “Virginia Tech and the Boeing Enterprise are utilizing our relationship to innovate on recruiting, hiring, and, ultimately, employee satisfaction, which benefits all parties involved. The ALP program is a key enabler of that innovation mindset.”

Get more information about Boeing’s Accelerated Leadership Program.

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