Virtual but still valuable: These students share how they made the most of their remote summer internships

August 18, 2020 | By Karsten Strauss

Last year, when Samika Kikkeri applied for a software engineering internship with Mastercard, she naturally thought she’d be working out of the company’s suburban St. Louis office, about a half-hour’s drive from Washington University where she’s majoring in computer science.

Those plans, and that world, seem far away in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Mastercard’s workforce went remote, so did its summer internship program. Kikkeri, who is 21 and heading into her senior year, wound up back home in San Jose, California, several time zones away, waking up early to tackle assignments from her laptop in her bedroom instead of from a workstation at the Mastercard Operations Center.

Her workday, she explains, began with a Skype meeting of her immediate team to discuss what had to be done that day. Other meetings and presentations were peppered throughout the week. “As an intern — especially remote — I think it was super important that I was present at any meeting that I was invited or asked to attend,” explains Kikkeri, who worked as a software engineer in support of Mastercard’s Global Rewards platform, part of the company’s Operations and Technology business unit. “Because ultimately, in four weeks, the most important thing is to soak up as much information as you can.”

Networking through the network

One of the highlights of an internship with a large, internationally-focused business like Mastercard is the ability to network — learning new skill sets, absorbing career advice and making friends and contacts for the future. During a remote program, those opportunities become more complicated. “It was a very busy four weeks, learning about your team and trying to get work done while also taking part in virtual intern events — it’s a lot to do,” Kikkeri says. “The good thing was that Mastercard held events in which you worked with other interns. That was a really nice way to meet other people.”

During one organized online meetup, a 20-minute presentation that she gave toward the end of the program, Kikkeri found herself opening up to her colleagues more than she’d imagined. “I mentioned, as a fun fact, that I was in an a cappella group. So, during the Q&A I was asked to sing — and I did!” she says, laughing. “It is a memory I will always cherish as unique to my Mastercard internship experience.”

“At the beginning of my internship I set a goal for myself — with my manager, so I could hold myself accountable — to meet at least two to three people a week who are not in my immediate team.”

Seeing beyond the screen

Emmanuel Klutse, 21, a computer science major at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, was able to connect with his online colleagues as he worked from his bedroom but it took some adjustment.

“If this was a face-to-face internship, I’d be able to make friends very quickly — even on the first day — because I’d be able to get that facial and visual feedback,” Klutse says. “But because we weren’t seeing each other, we were kind of holding to ourselves and being cautious on how we interacted. We became more relaxed and friendlier toward the end of the internship.”

During the final week of the program, Klutse scheduled one-on-one videoconferences with each of the 10 members of his team, who hailed from different cities and towns across the United States, to forge deeper connections.

Klutse, who migrated to the United States from Ghana, West Africa, at age 17 with his family, says he was particularly excited to help Mastercard in its efforts to give back to communities. He jumped at the opportunity to work for the OpenStreetMap Foundation — a nonprofit organization that provides free access to geographical data and accurate maps from around the world. Klutse gladly donated his efforts. “Apart from just focusing on financial inclusion, it highlights how Mastercard is making an effort to help with other issues in the world,” he says.

Both Klutse and Kikkeri feel that the internship program, while different from what they expected, was a success. “It’s very easy in a remote internship to lose sight of what is really important,” Kikkeri says. “You have to treat it like a real internship, so stay present, think of it as an eight-hour workday. Even though you are at home, you are working for those eight hours —that is your main task.”

Karsten Strauss, Contributor