Maggie Pan & Saagar Jain
DukeEngage Interns
Duke University

This summer NextEnergy had the honor of hosting two rising sophomore interns from Duke University. The program, called DukeEngage, places talented students with nonprofit organizations around the world in an effort to provide real world experiences that will positively influence their lives. I had the fortune of mentoring Maggie Pan and Saagar Jain. Maggie and Saagar came to NextEnergy with little to no knowledge of mobility, but quickly showed an eagerness to learn and critical thinking capabilities. There were no challenges too large, nor task too small. My goals for the summer internship were to expose Maggie and Saagar to a new topic and have them leave feeling confident enough to engage in mobility-related discussions in the future. What I experienced was something far more compelling and I asked them to describe their experience in their own words.
From all of us at NextEnergy, a genuine thank you for your efforts and the impact you’ve created this summer.
– Tim Slusser, Director, Mobility Initiatives, NextEnergy

As our summer with the DukeEngage program comes to an end and we began our reflection on our internship experience with NextEnergy, we were surprised by all the lessons we’ve learned in such a short amount of time. The experience we have had in Detroit was incredible and has allowed us to emerge from it with a better understanding of both our surroundings—our environment, community—and of ourselves—our interests, goals, and where we want to go from here.

Working with NextEnergy this summer has been a unique learning opportunity. Here are a few lessons that we have learned:

  1. Flexibility and open-mindedness is key. Creative thinking then ensues. Going into the project, we did not know what to expect. The first few days consisted of a lot reading of sustainability reports to get us familiar and up to speed with the mobility sector. Although admittedly it was not the most exciting task, it was critical step in our project; being able to go through the readings thoroughly with an open mind and grasp the composition of the transportation industry provided the necessary foundation for our succeeding projects. Several times in our project, we came across new information that required us to pivot or drastically changed our project direction. For example, we were given a different task to investigate into an unknown environmental certification program which disrupted our case studies on competitor organizations. This piece of research, however, ended up shaping the rest of our project. We were able to repurpose this research in different ways: it served not only as a model to design our own potential certification program but also as groundwork information for our last city outreach task.
  2. Excel is a really powerful tool. We had to create a database of over 700 Michigan communities, tag on a bunch of information to each, organize all of them, and somehow perform data analyses to extract specific information. Learning how to use Excel through some guidance from Tim and a lot of Google searches, we were able to analyze all this data to determine a target geographical location and target population range for potential city partnerships. Filters and automatically recalculating cells were features that were especially helpful in this process.
  3. Presentation and public speaking are necessary skills that will follow us everywhere. After the completion of each task, we created PowerPoint presentations on our competitor case studies, data analyses, etc. and presented those in front of the whole team as a project checkpoint and update. At first, presenting in front of people was somewhat uncomfortable but as we began to do it more often, our presentation skills also evolved. We were able to stand in front of our audience more comfortably and provide well thought-out answers to questions more spontaneously as we became more familiar with our work.
  4. Age does not equate to the value you bring. Even though we are only rising sophomores in college, there were countless times when we were told of our importance and value, we bring just by being in the workspace. After each of our presentations, we received many words of encouragement and praise, outlining the importance of our contributions and key insights we bring to the table. This supportive environment reaffirmed us of our belonging. Our contributions were not just “busy work” but critical findings and recommendations that will be used, updated, and shape future initiatives.
  5. The future of smart mobility and an overall sustainable future starts with us. Working in the environmental space, we have come to be more knowledgeable about the issues and barriers that prevent a cleaner world. Looking at our surroundings with a sustainability and clean energy mindset, we are now able to notice small issues in our communities and be more conscious of our own decisions, whether it be related to transportation or energy or water. This shift in awareness starts from us as individuals and can then expand, influencing our families, friends, communities and hopefully our whole society. The first step to building a sustainable future is to recognize the gaps in our lifestyles and our communities.
  6. Working in a small nonprofit is what you make of it. Going from school to a work environment was very different. There is a lot of autonomy when working in a job as compared to the structured system in college. This self-accountability requires self-motivation, passion, and interest in the work that is being done. Each person has importance and influence in a small business, so everyone’s opinions hold great weight. As a result, people also work closely together and across roles; the work that is being done is not limited to one job, rather it spills into other people’s roles as well. The interconnectivity of everyone’s jobs offers a unique and comprehensive experience but it is up to us to initiate and take advantage of that opportunity to learn.

We could not have asked for a more fulfilling experience this summer. NextEnergy provided a friendly and tight-knit work environment that made us feel like part of a family. When we came in to work every morning, we were greeted with smiles, and the staff was always curious about our weekends and our life outside of work. Having this supportive environment around us made it easier to reach out if we had any questions and enabled us to work more productively.

As this was the summer after our freshman year, this was our first internship experience while in college. NextEnergy designed a project for us in such a way that it was very different from any work we had done in school. College work tends to be mostly theoretical; this summer we learned that work in the “real world” is not like that. We were challenged to apply our skills and knowledge to provide solutions that will actually impact communities. Additionally, the project had clear goals and expectations but also allowed for a degree of flexibility. Thus, while we knew what our end goals were, we were able to figure out our own approaches to achieve those goals. Being challenged to think of novel approaches to tasks enhanced our skills in teamwork and problem solving. The design of the project was therefore ideal, as it gave us a glimpse of “real world” work and challenged us to approach this work in an innovative way.

We hope NextEnergy continues to work with DukeEngage students because we had such a positive experience this summer. Here are a few pieces of advice for any student interns that work with NextEnergy in the future:

  1. Learn from EVERYONE. Each person at NextEnergy has different backgrounds and areas of expertise, whether that be engineering, management, consulting, or marketing. Monday morning meetings are a great way to learn about what everyone in the company is working on. If you are interested in what anyone is doing, pick their brains. The staff is so friendly and is always open to answering your questions. There is so much to learn from such a diverse group of individuals.
  2. Be flexible. As you gather more information and make new insights, you may have to change the way you approach the project. This is not a bad thing! Changing the design of your project will often make your work more impactful. However, it is important to come into the project with an open mind, understanding that everything may not go as planned. If you take a closed-minded approach to the project, you may not realize the full potential of your work. In our case, a new and unexpected side task ended up being the framework for our entire project.
  3. HAVE FUN! Not everything you do is necessarily going to be the most exciting (e.g. filling out Excel spreadsheets). However, the work you do will be impactful, and this should drive you to do the best you possibly can. If you approach everything with a positive attitude, you will not only get the most out of the experience for yourself, but you will also be able to make the greatest impact on the community. NextEnergy is a very interesting nonprofit, and their projects/initiatives are important to the Detroit community. It is truly a privilege to work for such an organization.

Thank you once again for all the support, encouragement, and opportunities. This experience was incredibly valuable in many ways, developing our technical and soft skills, changing our mindset, and influencing our professional decisions and trajectories. Our wonderful experience in Detroit was heavily influenced by the community here, and we truly feel like we are part of the NextEnergy team. Believe us when we say this is also a bittersweet goodbye. Thank you!

— Maggie and Saagar

Learn more about the DukeEngage program.

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