Barbarella Castillo graduated from a private university shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She had plans to pursue medical school but, like the rest of the world, she put those on hold. After re-evaluating her options, she decided to pursue her interest in computing and enrolled in the Knight Foundation School of Computing and Information Sciences at FIU's College of Engineering and Computing.
“It was an excellent decision,” says Castillo, who in 2023 graduated from FIU with a second bachelor’s degree and a full-time job waiting for her at American Express. She landed the position with the help of a unique three-week internship facilitated by Break Through Tech Miami.
American Express Vice President of Technology Donna Peters, who hosted some of the interns, says partnering with programs like Break Through Tech, which is designed to increase female employment in technology, helps support American Express’s goal of embracing diversity to fuel creativity and innovation.
“We firmly believe that innovation thrives on diverse skillsets, backgrounds, and experiences,” says Peters. “What is most satisfying for me is witnessing the “aha” moments when the pieces of the puzzle come together, and student learnings come to life.”
"Sprinternships," as they are called, are micro-internships designed to bridge the gap between academia and industry. Unlike traditional internships, they don’t require students to ace a technical interview as a prerequisite. This removes one of the most common stumbling blocks for students attempting to enter the workforce, says Director of Break Through Tech Miami Nimmi Arunachalam.
“Hiring managers can get a better sense for a student’s long-term potential by seeing them perform in a natural environment rather than in a hypothetical, problem-solving scenario in front of a whiteboard, like what is typically presented in a traditional tech interview,” Arunachalam said.
“Evaluating students in an organic setting, where they work on a team and solve a challenging project, could be a better way of predicting future performance and fit.”
For many of the students, the experience was their first interaction with an employer in the tech industry. They took on projects of business value and, at the end of three weeks, presented their work to American Express leadership.
Neica Sainvilus, a first-generation college student who will graduate in the summer of 2024 with her bachelor’s in computer science, worked on a coding project with a team at American Express.
“The time went so fast,” she says, “And we all learned so much. We were using a programming language we weren’t familiar with, but our mentors were all very helpful and nice.”
At the end of three weeks, Sainvilus was offered a full-time job at American Express.
“I’m really excited,” says Sainvilus, who will join the company in October of 2024.
Computer science major Vanessa Riera, who received an offer of a traditional 10-week internship at American Express, was impressed by the effort that the employees made to ensure she was learning new skills.
“We had conversations with the senior engineer of our team who asked us about how we felt about our work and wanted to know how we were progressing in our knowledge,” she says. “They were also interested in our opinions of the company and the work environment.”
Arunachalam hopes that more employers will consider hosting such micro-internships.
“I hope that the tech industry will continue to see the strong, agile and diverse tech community that is growing here. We are firmly committed to helping students succeed and finding partners who will help us bridge the gap between academia and industry,” Arunachalam says.
The Knight School currently ranks No. 1 in the nation for awarding computer science degrees to Hispanic students. Break Through Tech is designed to propel students typically underrepresented in computing consider careers in technology. FIU was established as the Break Through Tech Miami site in 2021.