While many managers seek candidates from well-known schools, the SUCCESS Program reaches out to a lesser known, but equally talented, group of students – those attending community college.
“It’s really not about the school,” said Mark Derriso, the SUCCESS Program Manager. “It’s about the individual.”
AFRL’s SUCCESS Program offers tuition assistance, compensation and internship opportunities to community college students. Eligible students must major in engineering or science, maintain at least a 3.0 GPA and have one year completed (in a two-year degree program).
“Students typically enter the program while completing their associate’s degree, but they ultimately transfer to a four-year college,” said Adrienne Ephrem, an integration manager who assists with program coordination.
SUCCESS aims to provide community college students with the “internships and opportunities typically offered only to four-year schools,” said Amy Holtz, a research coordinator.
The program started in 2015 with 16 students from Sinclair Community College. Jared Neely, then a mechanical engineering student, participated in the pilot program. His goal was “to get his foot in the door at AFRL and gain on the job experience.” After completing two years at Sinclair, he transferred to the University of Dayton.
Initially, Neely interned with the 711th Human Performance Wing. While human factors work remained outside the scope of his major, his colleagues noted that he easily adapted his engineering skills to accomplish the job at hand. After developing a successful camera selection tool for a surveillance-viewing program, Neely won both the Civilian of the Quarter and the Civilian of the Year awards.
Impressed by this resourcefulness, his supervisor recommended him for an internship with the Aerospace Systems Directorate. Neely transferred to a position in the Small Engine Research Lab that better aligned with his mechanical engineering skill set. During his time there, he designed a hybrid electric generator and incorporated this work into his senior design project.
Just a few months into his new role, his supervisor called to say Neely was “outperforming some of the permanent employees,” said Mark Derriso, the SUCCESS Program Manager.
Before he finished his senior year, Neely had received five job offers. Immediately after graduation, he transferred to a full time civilian position in AFRL's Aerospace Systems Directorate.
Today, Neely is an associate mechanical engineer who studies morphing technologies. He is currently designing an entirely new winglet. He explains that winglets, when added to a plane’s wing, move during flight and change shape to improve the aerodynamics. Neely said he is fortunate since he enjoys coming to work every day.
“I like to try out new and exciting designs,” he asserts. “It doesn't feel like work since I'm having fun.”
In the spring of 2019, Neely will complete his Master’s degree. His plans for the future involve enrolling in a Ph.D. program. Neely credits the SUCCESS Program with building key relationships, providing useful contacts and enhancing his overall skill sets by placing him in various experiences.
Ricky Peters, the former Executive Director of AFRL, first envisioned this type of internship program about five years ago. He recognized that community college students come from different backgrounds than traditional university students and asserted that AFRL could benefit from these varied experiences.
“Community college students tend to overcome obstacles in life that traditional students do not typically encounter,” said Derriso. He explains that demographics highlight these differences in age, income level and socioeconomic status.
In addition to students’ diverse experiences and backgrounds, the SUCCESS program also strives to help AFRL take advantage of their diversity in thought.
These students have “problem solving skill sets that [are] important to the organization, but aren't captured on a resume,” said Derisso.
To leverage these students’ abilities, the program offers career training, mentorships, professional development seminars and job placement opportunities. Students interact with mentors who provide guidance and assistance with creating development plans. They also work within one of AFRL’s technology directorates depending on their interests and future career goals.
“Supervisors offer these students the opportunity to come in and work alongside AFRL civilian engineers and scientists,” said Derriso. He emphasizes the importance of this embedded work experience.
“The job placement gives supervisors the chance to see [the students'] work firsthand, and they can demonstrate their ability to work through problems.”
“At AFRL, we don’t have these textbook theoretical” problems,” he said. “We have real problems.”
Our goal is to introduce these individuals to real-life challenges and highlight their problem solving abilities to hiring managers, Derisso said.
Once these students complete their bachelor’s degree, supervisors can opt to hire them as full-time employees.
Even if these individuals do not work for AFRL after graduation, Derriso asserted they still make a positive impact on the community.
“We’re still feeding the engineering pipeline – building the STEM workforce,” he said.
Derisso, a technical advisor for a research division in the 711 HPW, developed this program with Bryan Stevens, a personnel management analyst, based on direction from AFRL leadership. He described the process as a learning experience in how the government operates. This education covered finance, personnel and other topics ranging from holding informational sessions, to releasing announcements and expending funds.
“Figuring out how to navigate through all those things that we needed in order to make the program work was very eye-opening for me in how AFRL works together as a whole,” said Derisso
One of the phases in the program involves job placement – assigning students to work in the various technology directorates. In the pilot program with Sinclair Community College, they placed students in Sensors, Airmen Systems and Aerospace Systems.
“We spoke directly with their supervisors to ensure a good fit,” he said
In addition to their individual assignments, the students come together for a group project. Last year’s mission involved an Unmanned Arial System (UAS) and a SAR (Search and Rescue) operation. The students designed the aircraft, assembled the plane and programmed the computers to carry out the mission. Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) instructors hosted training sessions and educated the team on the technology. This year, the students are working with the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine (USAFSAM) to create a virtual training app.
In 2016 and 2017, 16 more students joined, and the program expanded to Clark State Community College. Last year, the SUCCESS program also launched in Rome, New York at AFRL’s Information Directorate with four students from Mohawk Valley Community College. Four students also joined the program at Wright-Patterson AFB.
In the future, the SUCCESS program may launch in other AFRL sites across the country.
“My hope is for the program to be able to grow and impact studentsthat might not have [these] opportunities,” said Holtz. When we “provide opportunities to community college students, they can compete with other job candidates and land good careers,” she said.