The Right Track for Learning: Spotlight on Mohamed Abdi and Barrett Colombo
A few weeks ago we shared our excitement to welcome four summer-long interns from the City of St. Paul’s Right Track program. Over the nine weeks of their internship, they each worked with project teams at IonE, gaining new professional skills and learning about complex environmental problems. Every one of the Right Track interns was supervised by IonE staff members who supported and encouraged them as they adjusted to an unfamiliar environment, took on new challenges, and made important contributions to research, program development, and communications work at IonE.
One intern, however, didn’t need to adjust to a new environment. As the internship program wound to a close, we chatted with Mohamed Abdi and his IonE supervisor Barrett Colombo, who have participated in Right Track together for two years in a row. Mohamed first interned at IonE in the summer of 2017, and impressed us all with his tenacity and eagerness to learn. Barrett served as Mohamed’s supervisor for two years in a row, working hard to ensure that his internship experience offered the chance to gain valuable new skills while contributing meaningfully to IonE’s work solving global challenges.
We hope this brief interview will give you a glimpse into their fruitful working relationship – and show exactly why we at IonE are so grateful for our ongoing partnership with Right Track.
What has been your favorite part of this internship experience?
Mohamed: Working with Barrett, that was the best thing for me. He’s helped me with so many things like checking my email and checking my calendar – I wasn’t good at checking my email. He helped me learn to use different apps like Mendeley citation manager and Google Docs. I’m so grateful to have worked with him, and we don’t only talk about the job, but we talk about different things. He’s helped me get my driver’s license.
In my experience, last year I was able to do some communication projects, which were a good experience for me. This summer I’ve also been able to build some more skills that I’ve liked. I’m studying computer science and I want to learn more about data science, so Barrett has helped me to do some Python tutorials. After those tutorials I’ve been doing projects based on them, identifying questions I’m interested in, making code for those questions and importing them to Excel, which has been a great learning experience for me.
Barrett: We’re really also grateful for the second year in a row to have the opportunity to work with Mohamed. It’s just an unusual opportunity to work with somebody like Mohamed, somebody who is really smart, really empathetic and a good a listener, somebody who’s motivated to learn. To be able to work with him at a time in his life where he’s trying to figure out what he wants to do and to be able to help him learn, I’m grateful for that.
What’s something that’s been the same both years that you are grateful for?
Mohamed: What’s continued is our relationship, and our understanding, we have a good understanding of each other. I don’t see him just as my supervisor; I see him as a friend. I can ask him questions, and he has an answer for everything and I’m so grateful for that.
Barrett: Well, I don’t know if I have an answer for everything, but I agree, I’m grateful for our relationship. It’s been a relationship where we are working to contribute to the mission of the Institute on the Environment, but have also been able to get to know each other and learn about each other’s lives. And we try to have fun together.
Most internships last for a set term, and then they are over. Do you think there’s a benefit to being able to return to the same place two years in a row?
Mohamed: This year I really wanted to learn some new skills that would help me in college. I’m going to college for computer science, but when I started I didn’t know anything about computer science, but this year’s internship was a great opportunity for me to work on that and learn about some things like programming and data science. As well, I continued to build some skills that I’d learned last year.
When I found out I had the chance to come back, I never hesitated. This is the place for me. I wanted to learn more, to build on the skills I learned last year, but I didn’t know I’d also learn something new. Getting to learn about computer programming, that was a great experience. If I had the opportunity, I’d come back here every year.
Barrett: The more sustained engagement we have with our interns, the more effective it is as an investment, in terms of their context with the organization and ability to build on skills. Especially when, as you mentioned, some of the skills in our work are pretty specialized.
Being able to work together over more than one summer, we got to know each other. Getting to what Mohamed’s interests are, and to gain a fuller picture of him as a person, helped me to understand how to support him as a supervisor. Understanding his life experiences and the skills he had allowed me to see how those connected to the work of the Institute on the Environment.
One takeaway I’m very grateful for is the opportunity to continue that relationship. Last year we focused on a storytelling project through our environmental reports site, and Mohamed was one of the contributors to that, and the topic actually related to his experience. The project focused on climate change, and the impacts on livestock and people in arid areas of the world. There were other people on the team who have been to some of the areas in the project, but Mohamed actually grew up in an arid area, in Somalia. He was able to provide experience there, and offered that in the project. This year we shifted quite a bit, because we understood Mohamed’s interests more, and focused on computer science and data management. So we were able to connect his skills with our team’s needs, and also to help support some skill-building or exposure for him. It was gratifying to be able to try out different sets of skills, and let him see what different areas of our work are like over the two summers.
What have you learned from this experience that will continue to be useful to you in the future?
Mohamed: I would say that having learned how to send professional emails is a helpful skill for me. Also, scheduling appointments. That’s a helpful tool. I’ve figured out how to do some research, and some computer skills—like how to extract data from a website, and how to use a citation manger—that will help me in college, and have other applications.
Barrett: I think that working with Mohamed has taught me that the more we learn from our colleagues in different ways, and the more kinds of new relationships we can cultivate in our teams, the better our work itself is, and the richer our conversations are. I hope to continue to be able to use that when working with others, that’s one big thing I will take away.