Co-op During COVID

With the uncertainty of COVID-19 impacting all areas of the U.S. economy, it’s inevitable that Drexel Engineering students have had their co-op work experiences change from their prior experiences or even from the role they interviewed for just a few short months ago. What’s typically a 6-month work in an office or job site has turned into joining the workforce as essential and remote employees. Mechanical Engineering students, Masen Kasper and Laurynn Boissoneire, as well as Electrical and Computer Engineering student, Joshua Cohen shared how their current co-ops have shaped up.

While students’ journeys become unprecedented, they are setting a standard of work for a future that feels ambiguous. Though students have seen starkly different adjustments and available opportunities, there is one common thread—their work remains meaningful.

Canceled co-op turns into an entrepreneurial opportunity

Masen Kasper is a rising fourth-year student on the founding team of an organization Philly Fighting Covid as a student volunteer for R&D and Engineering. Philly Fighting Covid is a company rooted with students, scientists and engineers working to create personal protective equipment (PPE) to distribute to hospitals for free. The company also does free COVID-19 testing, with no requirements of symptoms, insurance or a doctor’s note, and is the first in the United States to provide free COVID-19 Molecular PCR tests to citizens provided by Quest Diagnostics. Kasper is close friends with Andrei Doroshin, the company’s Founder and CEO, who enlisted Masen to help start the organization after his original co-op position was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Kasper’s is working both from home and onsite creating new prototypes, problem solving, and working through projects with his team. When the company first started, he would work onsite for twelve hours each day, assisting with the start of the company from the ground up.

“It was a lot of figuring out how to make a company as much as it was a co-op position. I got to see the business, entrepreneur and logistical side of this process, which is something I’ve never really dealt with prior to this experience. My last co-op was very traditional—I had a computer, I sat down, I did my engineering work. Philly Fighting Covid is a lot of having to reach out to people, working out details, and securing legal rights to make our company legit—I’ve never seen that side of a start-up before, so it was a really interesting thing to learn. It's a very unusual type of work and doesn’t feel like a normal job.”

Kasper’s engineering team started with face shields, and eventually went on to making BM1 face masks. They’ve created a machine that can thermoform to heat up the mask’s plastic and thermoform it over a hard shell, and are currently working on making this machine automated for heightened productivity and mass production.

“The most interesting part of the job is how much actual engineering experience I’ve been able to learn from doing this, especially since it wasn’t set-up as a company prior to my co-op. The engineering team is all about finding solutions to problems, and jumping in with our end-goal in sight,” Kasper continues to reflect, “I’ve learned so much about thermoforming, design, machine building, and how to use different machining tools. I’ve gotten so much more knowledge just from having freedom in figuring out how to make things work. I always have support where, If I ever fall back, or have a question, or don’t know how to do something— there’s always someone older than me or someone above me who can help.”

Even after co-op and this pandemic, Kasper hopes to continue creating PPE with the company. In reality, there is no certainty in when a vaccine will become available, and so there will always be a need for affordable protection.

“That’s what our original mission was, and what it will always be. Making things as simple and as low-costing as possible to get people what they need. It’s about helping people, and that’s what has made working in this position as enjoyable as it is.”

Remote teamwork makes a difference at Belcan Corp for Boeing contract

On another side of Mechanical Engineering is Laurynn Boissonniere, a rising fourth-year student who embarked on a co-op with Belcan Corporation currently doing contract work for The Boeing Company. What was originally meant to be an in-person turned into a remote co-op straight from Boissonniere’s home in Maryland.

Her start date was delayed due to COVID-19, but once she got started Boissonniere was able to jump into this position with a team of employees who have offered support and encouragement during this quarantined time. At the start of each work day Boissonniere jumps on WebEx video conference with her team of five, collaborating on their weekly assigned work, like designs and drawings.

“My team has talked about it with each other, but a lot of the work we’re doing would be similar to what we’d do in person, just spread out amongst a huge office. We would have had to set meetings aside to do all the things we’re able to easily do remotely. Having this sort of daily interaction through WebEx makes the work go a lot faster, and everything feels so much more valuable.”

Despite Internet issues and a shift in the networking scene, Boissonniere has kept an optimistic outlook on the adjustment to remote working. She misses the hands-on field work she was able to experience in her prior co-op, however Belcan has given their employees a sense of normality through video chats, and an in-person experience acquiring equipment for the job. Boissonniere was able to walk manufacturing site and get a feel for it.

“Everyone knows Boeing— but to see the meaningful work they do beyond the name is what drew me to the position. I’ve really enjoyed my experience thus far, and I appreciate them being so accommodating as a co-op during the pandemic. All managers and employees have been really proactive in making sure everyone is safe and taken care of.”

Along with taking precautions, Belcan and Boeing provides necessary feedback and insight on the work they do. One of Boissonniere’s favorite parts of the day is her daily tag notes meetings with her manager. During this time, she’s able to have informal conversations about company news and what’s been accomplished in her team. She’s gets direction on her designs but gains feedback from Boeing’s her team’s work during these daily meetings. With no in-person contact, Boissonniere finds this process motivating—she’s able to know whether the company is happy with the pace of her team, and is offered encouragement that makes her work feel meaningful.

Prior to her current position, Boissonniere did not anticipate a future in aerospace and aviation but this co-op has made her consider where a future in mechanical engineering will take her. Whether or not she finds her future in aviation, she is grateful for the opportunity to explore the many different fields that her major could take her through co-op—even during a global pandemic.

Amazon Web Services provides essential work

From a computer and electrical engineering student’s point of view, the transition to working remotely has been bittersweet. Rising fifth-year Joshua Cohen is working in software development engineering at Amazon Web Services (AWS)—but it’s not his first time working for the company. He completed a previous co-op for Amazon, and thus offers perspective on how company culture has adjusted amidst the pandemic.

In his position, Cohen manages satellite antenna infrastructures across the world. His team is specifically a ground station, meaning he can interact with satellites in space through data processing, machine learning and can transfer data to different regions in the world. What makes his position especially unique is his ability to work closely with antenna hardware on top of the usual software he’d work with in his position. Cohen the opportunity to travel in his position, both locally onsite and across the United States to climb towers and work on the antenna. While there was initially a lot more opportunity to travel prior to the pandemic, Cohen has been working at home with computer equipment provided by Amazon to ensure a comfortable and productive workspace rather than going into the office.

In his day to day routine, Cohen attends online meetings and networking happy hours, with his coworkers of other computer and software engineers. “I work on a team. We call them two-pizza teams at Amazon, which means all the teams should be the size of a group that would eat two pizzas. There's a lot of quirks at Amazon that come from Jeff Bezos,” Cohen explains, “I’m on a team of seven to 14 people, and Amazon really makes you feel like a full-time employee, and they treat you as such. The specific project we work on is part of a production system, so it’s very meaningful and resembles what a developer would normally do. It gives you the ability to take a piece of something, and after four or five months say— this is what I did. This is the impact I made at Amazon.

Cohen has noted that, while the work and his schedule itself has not changed much pre- and mid-pandemic, there are definitely challenges and opportunities that come with working remotely. He has recognized the importance of asking questions and gaining knowledge that allows you to perform effectively at your job. When working remotely—this becomes harder. While onsite, it’s as easy as walking up to another person’s desk and ask a question, or schedule an in-person meeting. Cohen has had to adjust to this aspect of the job not being as present as it once was.

“Amazon and its leadership has acknowledged the challenge, and we’re all new to this. They’re actively trying to figure out how to make organic discussions happen. It’s not simple, talking to senior leadership, you learn that life during the pandemic is a lot different. They’re extremely positive about working online, because they have families. They get to spend more time with their kids, and that sort of stuff is definitely a benefit to them. But when you look at it from an intern’s perspective, all the questions you’d be asking these types of people are conversations you’re missing. It’s much harder to onboard and learn all the knowledge that comes with talking while walking the hallways with them,” Cohen says. “I’ve personally made it a point to not hesitate to ask questions, and send people messages in the same manner that I would have in person. I think that’s super important. If you don’t ask questions, then you don’t learn as much. You have to push yourself and step outside of your comfort zone, and it’ll really help offset the challenge that comes with onboarding remotely.”

Adjusting to a work-life balance can certainly be difficult while remote, but Cohen has been able to find comfort in the time he has gained while not in the office. In this sense, he feels as though he gets a lot more done than in his previous traditional role. Cohen also considers Amazon’s response to the pandemic—they didn’t cancel the position, and have done a lot to make sure interns and new employees are comfortable in their adjustments.

“When I think about Amazon, it’s basically one of the top four or five companies I could ever dream of getting into, and my co-op here has given me confidence that I know what I’m doing. It helps alleviate the bit of imposter syndrome that a lot of people have, and at the same time, it really humbles you. You’re around a lot of people who are way, way smarter than you, and it’s great because you can look at someone who is farther down the road in their career than you, and you can ask questions and get mentored by them. That’s helped me develop my soft skills, that I can now take back to my student organizations and things outside of Drexel and co-op. I see the difference in my level of confidence and competence when it comes to leadership and teamwork.”

To learn more about their experiences, tune into the Co-op in Real-time Panel occurring on Wednesday, August 6 at 12 p.m. as part of the incoming students’ Dragoneer Discovery Series.