High-speed training: Transportation internship gives grad student hands-on learning experience
An internship with the U.S. Department of Transportation gave graduate student Jason Schwartz an inside view of how the government works to safely and efficiently move people and goods across the country — whether by plane, train, ship, or even e-bike.
Schwartz, a master’s student in urban and regional planning in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and a graduate assistant at the Center for Economic and Community Engagement, even got to rub shoulders with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“I really enjoyed getting the opportunity to engage with leadership and learning how work is done in the federal government. I got to see how policies are developed and implemented from the high-level visions of senior political appointees to the nitty-gritty details refined by technical experts. It surprised me how much engagement there is between the different career levels,” Schwartz said.
His internship was provided through the Summer Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups, which allows undergraduate and graduate students to get hands-on experience in public service while learning more about transportation challenges and advancements in the U.S.
Schwartz learned about the state of transportation in the country through field trips to the Port of Baltimore to explore the MV Cape Washington cargo vessel and to Washington’s Union Station to ride the Virginia Railway Express. He also attended a speaker series where he met with Buttigieg and other Transportation Department leaders, including Deputy Secretary Polly Trottenberg and Amit Bose and Jennifer Mitchell of the Federal Railroad Administration.
At a fair at the department’s Navy Yard campus featuring bike shops and other local vendors, he got the chance to test-ride five different electric bikes. “A big focus of the event was that e-bikes can be used not only for recreation, but also for commuting or hauling cargo.”
During his 10 weeks at the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Railroad Policy and Development, Schwartz had to come up with a project idea and develop it from start to finish. He worked on a cost analysis of service development plans to support the Corridor Identification and Development Program, a framework to guide the future development of intercity passenger rail throughout the country.
Schwartz analyzed the costs of previous service development plans and studied multiple variables, including the route length, service frequency, and number of stations, to see how they would affect the cost.
He said his previous work with the Center for Economic and Community Engagement prepared him well for this type of work. “CECE really allows graduate students to get our hands dirty with real-world projects. We work with the center’s faculty to create a project’s scope and make sure we’re not trying to tackle too many things at once. My internship — and my work at the center — have shown me the answers to complex problems are not always clear-cut, and you have to be adaptable when challenges come up.”
At CECE, Schwartz recently analyzed data on the arts and craft center industry to help determine the feasibility of a proposed mixed-use arts and cultural center in North Carolina, collecting information on restaurants in the Southeast region and writing case studies on comparable art centers.
He also worked on a project that developed career pathway visuals for job seekers. Schwartz created career lattices in the health care, information technology, manufacturing, and construction fields, using economic data and interviews with industry experts in the New River Valley.
He is currently working on a graduate assistant-led project to help the town of Stuart, Virginia, understand the challenges and benefits of purchasing the historic Star Theatre to host concerts and other events. Schwartz is collecting demographic data around the Stuart area and analyzing the lodging and restaurants nearby to understand how they will be affected by the theater’s reopening.
“We hire graduate assistants to provide valuable support on these sorts of projects, such as conducting interviews, analyzing data, and writing reports. By collaborating with a team and interfacing with clients, students are able to get an idea of what their future career will be like,” said Sarah Lyon-Hill, associate director for research development at the center, which is part of Outreach and International Affairs.
Executive Director John Provo said this experiential learning is an important part of building the workforce in Virginia. “Having these types of hands-on learning experiences is impressive to employers and helps prepare students for what’s next after graduation,” he said.
Schwartz graduated from Virginia Tech in 2015 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. He expects to earn his master’s degree in 2023. After that, he hopes to continue working to improve the way people interact in the urban environment.
“I continue to be interested in improving the flow and operation of cities. I want to use the advances around transportation to enable sustainable development and create human-centered places. My internship left me with a positive impression of public service, and the federal government's mission of working on behalf of the American people really spoke to me,” he said.