One of the College of Applied Science and Technology’s (CAST) hallmarks is the opportunity for experiential learning. Not all of this learning happens on campus, however, and a lot of it would not happen at all without committed partnerships. When GROWMARK approached the School of Information Technology (IT) about a new internship opportunity, it was consequently an easy ‘yes.’

“One of our goals is to create opportunities for our students. This program at GROWMARK had so much potential to give the students a truly unique experience, we jumped at it,” said School of Information Technology Director Dr. Traci Carte.

Creating a new internship program focused on innovation in the area of information technology was an initiative that excited GROWMARK. “From year to year, the list of projects that align with GROWMARK’s initiatives continues to grow,” said GROWMARK Architecture and Innovation Manager Leland Roling ’05.  

“Our business areas rely heavily on our information technology division to complete those projects with the help of stakeholders in those same business areas, striving to automate, innovate, and enrich processes that set us apart from our competitors,” Roling said.

“Resources for those projects become slim as we ramp up more projects, and it has become increasingly more difficult to find resources who can work on the specific technologies that we desire,” said Roling.

While it is common for GROWMARK to host ISU interns, the company started to think about what could happen if they thought bigger. “Our involvement with Illinois State University over the past few years with the internship program opened our eyes to the possibility of expanding from utilizing a single student to bringing in an entire team,” Roling said. “This idea was bred from not only the aforementioned resource constraints but also our own experiences at Illinois State University as students ourselves.”

A person sitting down on a desk with three monitors.
GROWMARK’s Innovation Internship program provides an opportunity outside of the classroom for School of Information Technology students.

“Our goal was not only to get students involved in these projects and learn how a real-world IT project works, but also walk through the process of the birth of an idea all the way to see the final product live,” Roling said.

“GROWMARK can gain some valuable resources that work on real projects, our stakeholders gain some speed on the large list of projects we have in the pipeline, and we can potentially bring on new employees from this pool of interns as we continue to move forward,” he added. “We know that the students from Illinois State University were an employment pipeline for us, just on a small scale. We wanted to figure out how to ramp it up.”

GROWMARK Student Recruiter Niko Cinquepalmi was involved in planning the program from the beginning. “It was a collaborative effort, and it was really cool to see it come to life,” he said of the internship program that began as a pilot in summer 2021.

Five students were selected from more than 25 applicants, and two of the five are international students. “This is a significant opportunity for these students because not many companies are able to offer internships to the international student population,” School of Information Technology Coordinator of Academic Services Tal Parmenter said.

Interns were offered the opportunity to work heavily in cloud computing, specifically with Amazon Web Services (AWS). “Students built a full-stack web application that utilizes many AWS products in conjunction with one another to deliver a user experience for our IT support staff,” Roling said.

The hands-on experience didn’t end there. “We also had interns work on data science projects such as utilizing vast amounts of weather data and sales data from our system to forecast predictions. We even used machine learning and computer vision artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to determine the wait time at bulk fuel terminals by processing live camera feeds.”

Several things about the program made it a good fit for the students that were selected.

“During the interview process, they talked to us about developing an application from the ground up. That is not an experience that is easy to find,” said Ziemovit Kopacz, a computer science major who expects to graduate in May. He worked on the web app development project.

“It was clear this was going to be full exposure to a project from the beginning to the end. I was able to get experience in all areas, which gave me a better idea of where my strengths lie and where I can improve,” Kopacz said.

Ryane Brady ’20 had been interested in working at Growmark before the opportunity to complete an internship arose. “I met a recruiter at an internship fair. He called me a year later to let me know about this internship opportunity,” said Brady, who majored in marketing with a sequence in advanced data analytics. She worked on the data project.

“That he remembered me and reached out showed me that this was really a company that cares. To work for a company that cares and get some real-world experience was really intriguing,” Brady said.

While lessons about information technology abounded throughout the internship, there were other light-bulb moments that the interns will remember throughout their careers. Brady realized the value of taking constructive criticism wherever you can get it. “I always try to seek out correction now and be more open to those discussions,” she said. “It will take you far.”

Kopacz echoed Brady’s thoughts on receiving feedback. “In this format, developers would make lots of suggestions. We needed to be open to their feedback in order to build a better app.”

He also appreciated being part of a team in a professional setting. “Working on something in the real world—everyone really cares a lot. It was great to see that everyone was engaged and invested in the result. On the innovation team that I worked on, everyone had different backgrounds and skillsets, so there was never a topic that arose that we didn’t have some sort of knowledge base for.”

Such experiences are what Roling works to provide for interns to learn teamwork in the real world. “We are an innovation team so we are good at arguing constructively with each other. Arguing makes it better. Talking it out gives us better solutions. Having a collaborative environment where candor is appreciated is a good example of what it is like to be on a real-world team,” he said.

“Having interns in that environment is important, and having an internship team gives them peers to share ideas with. We wanted to bring people into our environment and see if they can flourish. One of our goals in the interview process was to find people that were open to learning and not stuck in their ways. We want to expose them to stuff that happens in the real world, help teach them to collaborate together.”

Cinquepalmi gives Roling’s team full credit for creating a collaborative atmosphere. “Leland’s team culture is amazing. He emphasizes teamwork to the nth degree. Add that environment to the fact that this group of interns was top-notch, and you have a great learning experience.”

“This team environment was very different than working on a group project for school,” Brady said. “I’m non-confrontational, so I would tend to do it someone else’s way on a project, but seeing it executed in the real world made me realize that it’s not personal. The discussion is so productive, and everyone is so respectful and actively participating in order to get the best outcome.”

“Our interns become part of our team, and we don’t stray away from our existing processes in how we work through ideas and bring them to our stakeholders,” explained Roling when asked about the program’s success. “Students are also working with cutting-edge technologies that are a premium skill to have in today’s market. We give them that exposure and confidence they need whether they will continue to work with us or with another company.”

Interested students should keep an eye out for future opportunities at GROWMARK. “Our long-term goal is to expand this program and continue to provide opportunities to students at Illinois State University,” said Roling.

“As an alum, I understand how important it is for students to gain experience prior to graduation. Without any true idea of what to expect in the job market, opportunities like this can give students the confidence they need to succeed when starting off in their careers. This program gives them that experience and confidence and gives us fresh eyes on our projects. It truly is a win-win.”

“From the start, it was an amazing process,” said Cinquepalmi. “We basically built the plane as we were flying it, and we weren’t quite sure what to expect. This group of interns made it a wonderful experience. They even had the opportunity to present to the IT department, and they absolutely crushed it. Seeing this program come to fruition was the exact validation that we needed to continue.”

“We are excited to continue working with GROWMARK on this unique internship opportunity, and are looking forward to growing the partnership,” said Carte.