Aspirations in Computing Summer Intern Program Succeeds Amidst COVID Disruptions

Aspirations in Computing Summer Intern Program Succeeds Amidst COVID Disruptions

Minnesota Aspirations in Computing (MNAiC), a program led by Minnesota State IT Center of Excellence, prides itself on ensuring that womxn in high school are afforded many opportunities to learn in-demand technology and career readiness skills.  Every MNAiC program experience intentionally engages students with technology professionals who help them understand and appreciate the passion and ambition that drives people to this career field.

Each year, hundreds of students benefit from interactions with MNAiC sponsor companies, and in return, companies gain value from the impressive technical skills and refreshing perspectives of stellar students.  Since the program inception in 2013, the summer internship program has matched nearly 60 outstanding young womxn to companies committed to helping motivated, mature high school students experience real-world technology work. 

Ten companies offering 19 internships were excited and ready to make 2020 the best-ever summer work experience for MNAiC state and national award honorees.   While COVID-19 disrupted a record year for in-person internship offerings, it also spurred a somewhat unexpected response from three of the partner businesses to conduct remote internships for seven of the honorees. 

We’re especially proud of our association with Land O’Lakes, Optum, and SPS Commerce, for their ability to shift the internship experience to virtual.  Internship leaders from each company met throughout the summer to forge this new path together, to support one another to offer an outstanding and unique learning experience for the seven interns.

Beth McMillan, Senior Manager, IT Portfolio, Land O’lakes had this to say about the summer 2020 experience:

“The Land O’Lakes culture values a diversity of voices. Vital to our success, and core to who we are, is diversity and inclusion. We understand that a diverse talent pool is essential to our future success – our Aspirations in Computing Program sponsorship is one way we work to achieve that goal.

This summer, Land O’Lakes had the opportunity to provide internships to two high school students, both of them young women who have an interest in STEM careers. We knew that managing an internship program in the midst of a pandemic would be a challenge. But what we didn’t know is that it would be inspirational as well as bring us to a place of gratitude.

The Land O’Lakes Aspirations Intern Team worked to create a safe and positive summer work experience for what was undoubtedly a unique internship.

According to intern Sofie Shand, ‘I learned how to work in a professional environment and how to communicate in meetings.  I feel a million times more confident. I’ve learned so much and had such a positive experience!’

‘This summer was a unique opportunity for the interns to experience the challenges and opportunities of virtual interactions,’ said Erik Dyste, Land O’Lakes Senior IT Manager. ‘We maintained the same momentum as previous years through daily video chats and cloud collaboration – I am amazed by what they were able to accomplish and the direct impact on the business.’

Land O’Lakes believes that participating in high school-level programs is not only critical to developing our talent pipeline, but also to building relationships with outstanding students. From them, and through our involvement with Aspirations in Computing, we can learn new, vital information – regardless if work is completed onsite or remotely.”

Kate Agnew, Director of Software Engineering, Optum shares her MNAiC history and intern program perspective:

“My connection to MNAiC goes back nearly 10 years. Serving as the managing director of the non-profit Girls in Tech MSP, I often collaborated with similar organizations with a mission of engaging the next generation of women in technology. At the time, I was also brand new in my career and not yet at a place where I could really grow the partnership internally to my organization.

In 2018, I was able to have two MNAiC young women shadow me for a day and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences. Kafka, an open source software used heavily on my team, is not widely known. However, one of the students was ecstatic to see we were using it. I couldn’t believe a high school student had even heard of it, and in that moment I knew we needed to deepen our connection to MNAiC.

This year, due in part to an enterprise-wide effort to increase the number of women in technology careers, we were able to offer two internship opportunities to awardees. Optum leadership truly believes that diversity in technology is key and is finding ways to increase diversity through partnerships like these. Across our company we believe that inclusion and diversity allow us all to utilize our full talents, ideas, and perspectives that fuel us as we live out our personal and company missions.

 Just as we were going through the interview process though, we found our world in the midst of a pandemic. At the time, we didn’t know exactly what the experience would look like or how it would change, but we knew it was important to still give these young women an amazing opportunity, and grow our talent pipeline, at a time like this.  Thankfully, I was also able to collaborate and connect about best practices with wonderful professionals from Land O’Lakes and SPS Commerce.  Given that both organizations had previously hosted MNAiC high school interns, they had a wealth of information and really helped me feel prepared to bring in interns as well.

 We learned a lot this year: from onboarding to ways to connect the young women both internally and externally, it was a great way to get our feet wet. Additionally, we put these interns on projects that, while important, hadn’t been prioritized for one reason or another. We made tangible progress on setting up new team members for success and giving visibility into the health of our platforms.

 The interns also learned a lot and got great exposure to the corporate environment. They were able to see how a large company functions on the inside, and how technology plays a role in health care. They were given the opportunity to network across the company, and partially thanks to COVID, found it easy to connect with colleagues all over the globe. They also learned a handful of Open Source technologies that will give them a great foundational knowledge for whatever they do next.

 By all accounts, the virtual internship experience was highly successful, and we are already looking forward to next year. We have been able to commit to another summer of hosting interns and are excited to build upon all that we learned to make the experience even more rewarding for these amazing MNAiC award recipients.”


Tijen Petersen, Student Programs Manager at SPS Commerce shares her unique connection to the MNAiC program:

“I started as the Student Programs Manager at SPS Commerce in February of 2020 and was thrilled to take over a group of programs that were gaining momentum within the Twin Cities and expanding our community impact with each student reached.

It is a gift to find an executive team that feels passionately about giving back to their community, specifically related to educational opportunities. Three weeks into my new position we were in the beginning of the pandemic. SPS was preparing itself for a new way of working, and I found myself presenting to our executive leadership team options for our summer internships, which included the Aspirations in Computing program. Our leadership had no intentions of letting the pandemic interfere with the SPS commitment to our community. The decision was made to pivot, welcoming three Aspirations interns (along with ten college interns) to our new work-from-home culture, as our first virtual intern group.  

The MNAiC students joined with our college-level Technology Internship Summer Program and from day one they surpassed expectations, effortlessly  joining teams of professional technologists, planning and executing work to deliver value. In addition to their technical projects, we built community through virtual teambuilding and educational sessions. The interns were fully integrated into the Technology Department, attending internal conferences, planning events, and team meetings hosted by technology leaders at SPS. Additionally, we were fortunate enough to have Aspirations in Computing interns from Land O’ Lakes join some of our professional development sessions and build their networks through interactions with our staff and interns. The Aspirations interns at SPS this summer were brilliant, engaged, and interesting. They contributed significantly to their projects and made this memorable summer even more incredible with their intellect, positivity, and creativity. We cannot wait for next summer!”

*Banner Photo Acknowledgement*  The banner photo features SPS Intern Breanne Pundsack, working from her home office.  Breanne is a graduate of the Math and Science Academy in Woodbury.

MNAiC seeks additional summer internship partners for 2021.  Your company can derive similar value to help you achieve business goals, including your opportunity to play a critical role in building and sustaining a Minnesota technology pipeline filled with diverse, high quality talent.  For more information, email