Growing up in a landlocked part of Pennsylvania, Connor Bluedorn didn’t have much exposure to the Coast Guard. “I knew a lot about search and rescue,” he said. “But not much more.”
That changed this summer when the 20-year-old computer engineering major from Penn State University did an internship at the service’s Research and Development Center (RDC) in New London, Connecticut. Over 10 weeks, he and his fellow interns visited the Coast Guard Academy, Sector Long Island Sound, the Marine Safety Lab, Coast Guard Cutters Sycamore and Campbell, and Air Station Cape Cod, where they flew up to the Canadian border in an HC-144 turboprop on a maritime patrol mission. Each student was also assigned a mentor and a separate research project – with Bluedorn developing a test kit that will be put on a cutter to gather data on the effectiveness of a SpaceX Starlink terminal and other commercial solutions for providing connectivity at high latitudes.
The RDC has hosted interns for years, but when preparing for this session, organizers sought to add something new to the program that would highlight its different units and unique career opportunities. “We structured it in a way to meet Adm. (Linda) Fagan’s Commandant’s Intent to deploy innovative recruiting practices to attract the workforce of the future,” said Dr. Joseph DiRenzo, director of research partnerships for the RDC. “We wanted these students to be able to experience different Coast Guard missions, on sea, on land, and in the air.”
One of this year’s interns came from the Naval Academy, one from the Coast Guard Academy and one from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Four others, including Bluedorn, earned their spots through HS-Power, a Department of Homeland Security-sponsored program designed to link talented students with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and security-related majors to research opportunities in the federal government. Other entities that the RDC has worked with for interns include the Air Force Academy and the Merchant Marine.
HS-Power interns earned a weekly stipend, lived in dorms at local colleges, and were reimbursed for travel. When the students applied, they were able to rank their preferences among different government agencies. After the applications were screened, branch chiefs at the RDC reviewed the top candidates prior to making a selection.
Amy Cutting, C5I branch chief at the RDC, selected Hannah Klein, a 19-year-old emergency management major from Notre Dame College in Cleveland to do a research project evaluating handheld device applications that provide post-storm damage assessments. “She didn’t have the traditional STEM background,” Cutting said. “But she brought a lot of knowledge from the emergency management perspective and is training to be a firefighter.”
Klein says she knew little about the Coast Guard when she first arrived and was put to work quickly. She said highlights during her internship included driving a small boat, conducting fire drill training with a cutter crew and learning the differences of land firefighting. “We were exposed to so many aspects of the Coast Guard, it made me rethink my goal of being a firefighter,” she said, and who is now seriously considering enlisting upon graduation. “Because of this experience, I’m exploring becoming a rescue swimmer or a rotary pilot.”
Bluedorn, too, noted discussions with his mentor have made him think about the Coast Guard reserves for the future. “But the best part for me was being able to contribute meaningful progress to a real project. You don’t get to do that at school.”
DiRenzo believes one of the strengths of the RDC internship is its ability to take a small number of interns to be part of something innovative and tailor the project to each person. He remembers past interns who have come back to join or work for the Coast Guard. “But even if they don’t,” he said, “these [students] will go out and tell others all they’ve learned about the Coast Guard’s mission and the careers.”
Capt. Daniel Keane, who oversees the internship program as the RDC commanding officer, says he sees it as mutually beneficial. The interns got into the field to visit a variety of Coast Guard units, he notes, while also making substantial contributions to several current RDC research projects. “We’re looking forward to hosting more interns next summer,” he said. “Recruiting the best and brightest is crucial to bringing new STEM talent into both the Coast Guard’s military and civilian workforce.”