Future engineers gain real-world experience through summer program

SPONSORED: Internships helped these three ANSEP students zero in on career goals after graduation.

Each year, students in the University of Alaska Anchorage's Alaska Native Science & Engineering Program (ANSEP) get the chance to gain real-world knowledge in their field, through year-long and summer internships with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The goal is to strengthen the Alaska Native and Native American workforce to create future tribal health leaders. Aaliq Rowland, Gwendolyn Francis and Andrea Moreno each interned with different divisions of ANTHC's Environmental Health and Engineering department. They shared their summer experiences with us.

Aaliq Rowland, Tribal Utility Support

Adults often joke that what they learned in high school is irrelevant to everyday life and Aaliq Rowland is no different. The 23-year-old mechanical engineering major, who graduated from Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, remembers his high school education as "a bunch of information that you'll never use again."

But after an internship with ANTHC's Tribal Utility Services, his viewpoint has changed.

"The lecture material that I'm learning in school, it all does apply somewhere," said Rowland. "What (the internship) did was give me more of a drive to finish school, because now I see where I can apply it. All this stuff in college I'm learning, I'm going to need it at some point."

Rowland put his lecture material to work this summer as part of a team that traveled to rural villages. He worked on water treatment and energy projects helping residents learn how to operate systems, troubleshoot problems and test wind turbine energy as a way to heat water circulating through village water lines.

He also spent a lot of time writing, which surprised him. Mechanical engineering students are required to take one technical writing course in addition to the required college-level English, Rowland said. Yet a good deal of this work involved drafting operations and training manuals on the systems the team was working on.

"I went into mechanical engineering thinking, 'All right, I'm probably never going to have to write again.' I was wrong," he said with a laugh. "Every time I finished a draft, it looked like my supervisor poured a red pen over it."

Rowland hasn't given much thought to life after college. "Really, I'm just focused on finishing school," he said, although he does know where he'd like to apply his skills.

"I'd like to use my degree to give back to the Native community," he said. "Just because they've been super supportive of me," he said.

Andrea Moreno, Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative

Andrea Moreno seems to have been destined for an engineering degree long before she even knew it was an option.

"Ever since I can remember, I've been really artsy and really into math and science," the 23-year-old civil engineering major said. With encouragement from her high school advisor and an algebra teacher—who also happened to be an engineer—she looked into UAA's engineering program.

"It seemed like a good fit," she said, adding that support from ANSEP—having a community of students, university faculty and staff, as well as external partners to facilitate personal and professional success—was a motivating factor in her decision to pursue her degree program.

This is Moreno's second internship with ANTHC having first worked with their energy program several summers ago. This time, Moreno is part of a year-long internship with the Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative, which partners with rural communities to manage, operate and maintain their water and sewer systems.

As part of ARUC Moreno helps water and sewer treatment plant operators understand their systems—first learning the systems herself—and then traveling to villages to teach what she knows. The systems themselves are challenging and involve aspects of mechanical and electrical engineering that she's never worked with before, but said that's what makes it interesting.

"Getting to see everything that we do on the engineering side, it's new to me and I really like that," Moreno said. "Anything that's new and that I can learn and apply, it's really been beneficial."

Moreno hopes the internship will lead to full-time employment with ANTHC when she graduates this spring. But even if it doesn't, like Rowland and Francis, she knows where she plans to focus her energies.

"My whole goal (is to) get my education and use it in a way that's beneficial for Alaskans," she said. "I know that this is what I would like to continue doing after I graduate."

Gwendolyn Francis, Strategic Access Department

Growing up in the tiny village of Pitka's Point (population: 150), Gwendolyn Francis enjoyed building and was skilled in math. However, compared to her 20-something classmates, the 32-year-old electrical engineering major took a bit longer to discover the field.

Francis initially earned an associate degree from Prince William Sound Community College, but quickly realized she wanted a degree that afforded her more job opportunities. Searching for a program with more potential, she discovered engineering, which dovetailed with her interest in both design and math.

"I enjoy designing and the process of designing—how things work and how things can be better," Francis said. "I also enjoy being able to use math and science to fix and build or make something better that everyone can use on a daily basis."

Francis was able to explore those interests with ANTHC's Strategic Access Department, where she spent the summer helping renovate and expand Alaska Native Medical Center buildings, making the facilities more up-to-date and energy efficient.

Like Moreno, this is Francis' second internship with ANTHC. She once worked to upgrade Alaska Native Medical Center's lighting system. Each experience has helped narrow her career focus.

"I kind of want to focus more toward the hardware aspect of my engineering career," she said. "Looking at wires, circuitry and electricity within the building."

A single mom with two young boys at home, Francis cut back to a part-time course load in order to balance school, work and motherhood. She expects to graduate in 2018 and, like Rowland and Moreno, plans to use her degree to give back to the Alaska Native community.

Throughout the year,  ANTHC offers Alaska Native and American Indian students education opportunities through paid internships in a variety of areas, including engineering and community health. To learn more, visit ANTHC's website


This article was produced by the special content department of Alaska Dispatch News in collaboration with ANTHC. Contact the editor, Jamie Gonzales, at jgonzales@alaskadispatch.com. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.