Navigating Internships in these Unprecedented Times

January 19, 2021

It’s no secret that a global pandemic has changed the college campus, particularly for students pursuing careers in public engagement. How can you dive headfirst into public garden management while social distancing? The answer involves creative thinking and a digital touch. CFANS junior Nick Witthoeft discovered this himself during the heat of a COVID summer. 

Witthoeft started his undergraduate journey as undeclared. “I was taking plant propagation and working at the Bell Museum, and one day at work there was a presentation by Dr. Jerry Cohen. He convinced me to take another horticulture class which led me to change my major,” Witthoeft explained, “I wanted a major that combined my analytical skills with my passion for plants.” That major turned out to be Forestry and Natural Resources Management.

Declaring his new major led Witthoeft to explore new opportunities. Witthoeft applied, and was selected for the Landscape Arboretum Scholars Program hosted at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. The program is designed for students to spend the summer rotating with garden managers, learning about horticultural techniques from plant identification to propagation to garden management. “Students also create projects that relate directly to their coursework and interests and present them to the Arboretum staff at the end of the summer,” program coordinator, Professor Mary Meyer, explained. 

But with the onset of COVID-19, Witthoeft wasn’t comfortable with the idea of being surrounded by people—even distanced, outside, and masked. “I was excited to work at the Arb,” Witthoeft explained, “but because of what was going on with COVID, I decided I needed to stay home and help my family. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to find another internship, but Professor Meyer and I worked it out and I was able to do my internship remotely and still be a part of the program,” Witthoeft said. 

Witthoeft was able to find an internship working remotely for Sentara, an agriculture technology start-up, as a geographic information system (GIS) analyst. “I was happy to help Nick find a project that would advance his skills and meet the requirements of an internship,” Meyer said. “He already had the industry contacts and together we worked to develop a project that benefited everyone.” Meyer made sure that he still felt that he was a part of the cohort of the Landscape Scholars program and that he was able to present with the other students at the end of the summer. 

Witthoeft spent the summer mapping plants using drones; from cornfields to apple orchards. He then analyzed these images using computer software. “We did this to help growers better understand their plants,” Witthoeft explained. “It was a big change from what I thought I was going to spend my summer doing. I'm grateful for the internship and the flexibility of the program. I learned a lot of skills that will definitely help me in my major and in my future career”.