Writen By: Shivani Desai (Guest Writer)
Lawrenceville, GA Cohort
March signaled a turning point in the already historic 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic changed every aspect of our lives, and students were left to make decisions under a great deal of uncertainty. Millions of students were experiencing a new age of digital learning, with varied results. We were collectively hopeful that things would return to normal by the end of May. The truth is, normal would never be the same again.
Every summer, across 8 Cisco Locations (Lawrenceville, GA; Rosemont, IL; Toronto, ON; RTP, NC; Glendale, CA; San Jose, CA; Boxborough, MA; and New York City, NY), rising seniors and incoming college freshmen are immersed into the company’s history, culture, and technology for an unpaid internship (dubbed externship). Cisco Systems, as a Fortune 500 tech company, already has a long history of problem-solving and creating “long-lasting customer partnerships, working together to identify [their] customers' needs and provide solutions that fuel their success.”- Sweetie Browne. While some decades-recurring programs were outright canceled in an effort to maintain social distancing guidelines and keep employees safe, Cisco began to rework a number of other activities and effectively redefine their definition of normal. Cisco’s High School STEM Externship was one of the Cisco programs that were drastically modified. The original four weeks on-site framework was no longer possible, so the Sweetie and the program team took the initiative to continue supporting high school students online by holding their first-ever 2-week virtual High School STEM Externship.
The application process began with a written form that required two letters of recommendation and a school transcript. In addition, applicants had to record two video segments answering questions about why we wanted the internship experience. As an applicant myself, I recorded videos about how I was familiar with Cisco, inspired by its vision, and how the internship experience would enrich my future plans. After this initial submission, qualified candidates were contacted to register for an interview that was conducted by two Cisco employees from different locations. The interview served as a good way for applicants to showcase our personalities by discussing our strengths and weaknesses and showing our interviewers examples of us working in teams.
In April, I received the news that I was selected to be among the 20 members of Cisco’s Lawrenceville, GA cohort. Our first task was to attend a series of onboarding sessions with the global program lead and coordinator, Sweetie Browne, through Cisco’s premiere video-conferencing software, Webex. With over 134 peers meeting face-to-face virtually in an unprecedented time, nobody knew what to expect. To Browne, "[Managing the internship program] is more than a job for me, it is my values, passion and commitment to lead and influence the lives of our students to become the best versions of themselves. It is truly an honor to...give students the opportunity to envision what their career would look like in the STEM field and also make them feel empowered and inspired to fuel their potential of who they are to become, our compassionate, innovative thought-provoking next-gen leaders."
By the morning of June 15, I was ready to see how it would all play out. We were greeted by the two Intern Coordinators for Lawrenceville, Karol Mina Valencia and Darryl Terrell. Both had completed the externship last year and had come back as intern coordinators to manage the next cohort. Darryl, who is a rising freshman at Xavier University, writes, “Being an intern coordinator this year was an excellent experience... Despite this year being entirely online, I primarily came back because of my love for the program. Last year, I learned so much from a professional standpoint, and I felt it was my job to make sure the students in this year’s cohort walked away with the same knowledge (and hopefully in some cases even more).”
Everyone was reserved. The mute symbol was prominent on the WebEx screen as we all sat down on our desk setups for the first time since school had ended for another virtual experience. We learned that over the next two weeks, our schedules would be packed with unique sessions; we would be exposed to concepts such as Connected Manufacturing, Cisco Devnet, Packet Tracer Labs, Tech in Schools, and Machine Learning. We were also introduced to programs we could follow during or after university, such as Early in University, Cisco Sales Associate Program (C-SAP), and opportunities including Cisco certifications that we could add to our portfolio. The presenters were great at taking questions and wanted us to cater the interactive experience to what we wanted to get out of it. Several of the presentations focused on examples of Cisco solving a variety of engaging problems, which is of growing importance as the COVID-19 situation continues to be the reality in the United States.
Although Cisco is a technical product company, it can’t function without its sales force. Recognizing this, Cisco employees ensured that business and soft skills are emphasized just as much as technical ones. This externship really prepares you for real-world business, networking, and personal branding—things that allow us to focus on action items to further our future careers rather than the theory to unlock success later on. Everyone was earnest about helping the next generation explore and innovate. Uriah Eichele, Site Lead, remarks, "I have been a site lead for Cisco High for four years now... I love being a site lead because I get a chance to meet some of the top talent entering the workforce...and at the end of the day, this role gives me the opportunity to start recruiting the engineering talent of tomorrow!"
For two hours each week, we saw first hand what employees were working on and solving on a day to day basis: hardware projects, cybersecurity monitoring, sales schedules, etc. This was all done in small groups with a more personal connection. Every extern was also assigned a one-on-one mentor to advise us and discuss our aspirations. The virtual format presented another new opportunity: connecting with other locations. We did a virtual city tour exchange with the Rosemont location and had a great time talking about the similarities and differences between Atlanta and Chicago cultures.
Perhaps the most rewarding element of the externship was the Capstone Project. Split into groups of four, externs were tasked with designing a solution to a problem related to the Internet of Things. This year, the project concerned the inefficiencies of digital learning. My group (shoutout to the WebEducators!) decided to tackle the problem of declining student engagement and retention in online classes. While designing our solutions, we were required to do extensive research and consult with experts in the field.
For most of us, this was our first time delivering a presentation online in front of corporate executives. It had real value because it presented a challenge that we would face in the future. We had the opportunity to strengthen our spontaneity while dealing with common online issues. Sure, we had the usual issues of microphones not connecting (I dealt with that problem for the first three days), wifi timing out, screens freezing, etc., but it didn’t stop us from persevering because we had a desire to learn from the experience every day.
By graduation day, it really felt like four weeks had gone by. We went from 20/20 participants on mute, to talking all at once during a virtual talent show and laughing with newly made friends and peers we could reach out to in the future.
The last day was full of reflection, friendly competition between sites across America about Cisco trivia, and Cisco swag. Nikita Dandekar, a rising senior at Peachtree Ridge High School and fellow extern, notes, “Despite the entire program being virtual...The externs were able to form a bond even through the screen, and we all walked away from this program with so many new connections and a new outlook on our future.”
As Cisco executive Mike Solomita recounted in a session, we should always be innovative. Learning is a lifelong journey. Similarly, Cisco’s mission is to shape the future with new opportunities. Morgan Bondon, VP of Sales and Executive Sponsor for the Externship, adds, “the Cisco High Externship is one of my favorite programs at Cisco. Seeing such a diverse, talented and engaged group of young professionals inspires me. I learn as much from them as they do from the program. I feel it’s my responsibility to provide an environment where we invest in our future leaders!”
With this externship, you become part of a family committed to inspiring the next generation. Several of the employees I was in sessions with are also a part of the Society of Women Engineers and committed to diversifying the workforce. I was able to realize the sheer magnitude of opportunity in the world and how all sectors are interconnected. I understand that I can follow all of my passions while still making a difference within a company and the world. I am so grateful for this experience and would like to thank all of the Coordinators, Executives, Sponsors, and Leads for organizing this program.
If you are a rising junior or senior, I strongly encourage everyone to apply and join this lifelong community. Applications roll out early in the new year. If you have any questions about the process, please reach out to me on LinkedIn.
Have a safe, healthy summer, everyone!