Alumni-driven scholarships pave the way for summer interns
Funding provided by alumni of the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering enables students to get real-world experience and lessens financial burden.
Morgan Blackwood Patel, a 2003 graduate of the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISE), is a firm believer in the full student experience — including a combination of classroom and real-world learning.
“Virginia Tech ISE students are already at an incredible university in a top program, but that internship experience can really move the needle on landing an amazing job posting upon graduation,” Blackwood Patel said.
When department head Eileen Van Aken shared that students in the department were turning down internships because they would not be able to afford relocation or living expenses, Blackwood Patel and her husband, Manish, saw an opportunity to support students directly.
“I experienced this challenge during my own internship in business school — double rent, car rental, flights. It can be challenging to pay for rent and transportation out of pocket, and students don’t always have the advantage to negotiate this as part of their summer package,” Blackwood Patel said. “We thought this was really that opportunity to support the advice that we give to students — get practical job experience.”
Going the distance
With support from the College of Engineering's advancement team, Blackwood Patel established the Morgan Blackwood Patel Internship Scholarship for ISE students. Support from the scholarship ensures students can fully embrace their internship experiences without having to worry about the cost of relocation or living expenses.
“The way Manish and I see this is that this scholarship can really open opportunities. For someone who wants to intern with a startup in San Francisco, I’m sure rent alone would eat up every dollar you make in your internship,” Blackwood Patel said. “This creates a lot of opportunities for students that want to go farther than their childhood home or Blacksburg. It opens up new companies they can intern with. It allows them to try new things and new cities.”
The first round of five scholarship recipients were awarded in 2020 after 35 students applied. Blackwood Patel realized the impact and knew it was important to get fellow alumni involved. She reached out to her classmates, including Elizabeth Dominicci, who decided to join the effort.
“Morgan reached out to a group of alumni to let us know she had participated in this sort of giving, and I immediately jumped at the opportunity,” Dominicci said. “I knew I wanted to give back to the department even when I was a student, and being able to support students during their internships is incredible.”
The following year, the Internship Scholarship funded by Blackwood Patel and Dominicci supported 10 students.
“It goes to show you can only multiply the effect by simply asking others,” Blackwood Patel said. “This sort of gift helps students feel significant, and bringing others into the fold is where we can really multiply our impact.”
Both Blackwood Patel and Dominicci are advocates of hands-on work experience outside of the classroom, and summer internships provide just that. Summer internships are one of the transformational experiences the university is highlighting as part of Virginia Tech Advantage, a multiyear commitment to offer a broad educational experience to undergraduate students from Virginia who have financial need.
“Internships help you apply the skills you learn in the classroom in different modalities,” Dominicci said. “For ISE students, they might want to sample manufacturing or management, and trying something new over the summer helps them find what they’re interested in, and weed out what isn’t a good fit.”
This year, the Internship Scholarship program supported both in- and out-of-state students, but had a profound impact on three seniors from Virginia: Kelli McMillan, Nina Lieu, and Daniel Vargas.
Finding ease in a housing hassle
When McMillan started her position as an operations management intern at Target in Stuarts Draft, she received relocation assistance. Unfortunately, an unexpected change in housing during the school year already had her paying rent for two apartments in Blacksburg. Hours away from her hometown of Sterling, there was no option for living at home. The cost of the commute, groceries, and three rent payments was daunting.
“I had two overlapping leases in Blacksburg, and with the housing I’d found in Charlottesville, my relocation allowance wasn’t going to cover it. I was going to end up putting all my earnings into just paying for housing, and that didn’t count the gas I’d need for the commute to Stuarts Draft and groceries.”
The Internship Scholarship was able to offset the cost of McMillan’s housing in Blacksburg so she could use her internship earnings and stipend for her living expenses during the summer.
“The scholarship was a relief. These sorts of programs remove barriers for students because internships are so important for finding jobs. Even now, as I apply for jobs as a senior, my internship this summer is making a huge difference in that process. It can be hard to find a sublease over the summer in Blacksburg, and that shouldn’t be the reason you don’t take an internship.”
Bridging the gap between day one and payday
Vargas spent his summer working for Pepsi in Newport News. While he was looking forward to immersing himself in the world of supply chain management, the stress of transitioning to a new area weighed in the back of his mind. Vargas is originally from Fairfax and didn’t have family in Newport News. The Internship Scholarship removed the burden of adjusting before his first paycheck.
“There are a lot of new costs when moving to a new area, between finding a place to live, mileage, and groceries. This scholarship really reduced that burden, so I could feel secure in having everything I needed during the first few weeks before getting paid.”
Cost of the commute
Lieu, a Northern Virginia native, was able to secure an internship with Arcfield in Chantilly. Lieu was able to live with her family for the duration of her internship, but the commute was still nearly an hour round trip each day.
“The scholarship was able to offset the cost of gas so I could commute to my internship. Without that support, I might have ended up choosing something closer to home. I’m glad I didn’t have to do that, because I really enjoyed my experience with Arcfield and it helped me narrow down choices between different career paths.”
Blackwood Patel and Dominicci hope this momentum continues as more alumni get involved. As the Internship Scholarship program continues to grow, more students will have the opportunity to grow and develop their skills with relevant job experience – regardless of their financial need.
“My No. 1 piece of advice is to get a real job during the summer,” Blackwood Patel said. “Try to find some kind of internship, externship, shadowing, anything to give you that real-world job experience. Employers really like to see that direct connection.”