Helping Hands: Illinois Tech Alumnus Creates Pathway to Student Internships



By Casey Moffitt

Underrepresented tech students—especially women, underrepresented minorities, and first-generation students—face unique challenges finding professional experience before graduation, but an Illinois Institute of Technology alumnus has launched a new initiative to help these students obtain internship opportunities.

Vinesh Kannan (CS ’19) established Scarlet Data Studio to offer paid software engineering internships for Illinois Tech students who are struggling to overcome the challenges that hinder them from participating in real-world experiences.

“I regularly witness hard-working, curious, and talented Illinois Tech students get passed over for internships. These rejections lead some students to doubt their skills or even feel isolated,” Kannan says. “We hope the experience and confidence they gain from Scarlet Data Studio will help them succeed in their career goals.”

All students face their own career preparation challenges, and the interns participating in Scarlet Data Studio are no exception. The interns noted that their specific challenges include caring for a family member at home, needing work authorization, working full-time or part-time while taking courses, and having other internships canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some reported discrimination because of their race, gender, ethnicity, or identity.

“We realized that we didn't need a company to offer students an internship,” Kannan says. “Instead of just helping students search for existing internships, we created new internships so more Illinois Tech students could have more opportunities to learn and grow.”

This past summer, Kannan recruited five fellow Illinois Tech alumni who are working as professional software engineers to serve as mentors for Scarlet Data Studio. Ten Illinois Tech students were selected for a four-week internship to analyze public data and develop features in Python, SQL, and JavaScript.      

Together, they created TransitHealth, a website that shows how public health and transit data in Chicago has shifted since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the city. Using data sets found in the City of Chicago’s Data Portal, each intern took ownership of a dataset and launched features to tell a story about how their topic affected each neighborhood and intersected with public health issues.      

“Our goal for each intern was to get them to contribute to all three parts of our codebase: offline pipelines, back-end server, and front-end application,” Kannan says. “From there they then move on to a stretch project, where they work on a task just above their current skill level.”

Scarlet Data Studio was the first internship experience for Jacqueline Macias (CYBS 2nd Year). She had the distinct team role of performing a cybersecurity audit on the website and implementing fixes.

“I was able to perform fixes by inserting security headers into the back end of the code and upload the new code,” she says. “This experience elevated my curiosity in the field and what I might look forward to in the future.”

Scarlet Data Studio was a perfect opportunity for Maria Garcia (CS 4th Year) to work on front-end components of the website, as well as extracting data, transforming it to a usable format, and loading it to the site.

“I am the first in my family to go to college, working while studying, and I don’t have a car, so I rely on public transport. As a young woman, that can be limiting since I try not to be on the train after dark,” she says. “All these factors made it difficult for me to get an internship or even know where to start looking for one, so Scarlet Data Studio was a great opportunity for me.”

She says the experience will not only enhance her résumé but also gave her the confidence to enter the industry.

“I often have imposter syndrome, feeling as though I am not good enough to work in tech,” Garcia says. “SDS showed me otherwise.”

William Javier (CS 4th Year) also says the experience he gained through Scarlet Data Studio built up his confidence. He proved to himself that he can be motivated to learn and meet the demands of a given project.

“I owe a lot to my mentors,” he says. “When I felt ashamed that I couldn’t solve a problem, they told me not to be ashamed, but strive to be better, to take it easy, and never be afraid to ask questions.”

Fabian Abrego (CS 4th Year) says he learned new programming languages and new flavors of familiar languages during his work with Scarlet Data Studio.

“Overcoming these challenges came down to my determination to create a great product and being able to work alongside my mentor,” Abrego says. “Being able to see my programming come to life on the website was the most enjoyable for me. It really felt like I was contributing to a website already being crafted by many talented people.”

Mentors play a key role at Scarlet Data Studio. Kannan says he deliberately recruited Illinois Tech alumni to serve as mentors to give interns role models who represent their next step in professional growth. The mentors also are people the interns can rely on for realistic career advice in the future.

Aleksandra Kukielko (CS/M.S. CS ’18) is an applications developer at Liventus, a Northbrook, Illinois-based e-commerce company. She had previous mentoring experience as a member of Illinois Tech’s STARS chapter, and was excited to serve as mentor with Scarlet Data Studio after Kannan reached out to her. She says she was impressed with the interns’ skills and abilities to grasp the concepts outlined in the project.

“I was really expecting to have to hold someone’s hand through the entire project,” she says. “But these students were smart, knew what to do, and asked good questions.”

Kukielko had a similar college experience to many of the Scarlet Data Studio interns, saying she struggled through coursework. However, her confidence grew, too, when she had some hands-on experience working on real-world projects, and she knew this experience would be valuable to the interns.

“Scarlet Data Studio gives great exposure to what a programming career is outside of school—working with other developers; maintaining your own goals; using the network of mentors to guide yourself on the right path; seeing the deliverable in the form of a real, online website,” she says. “These are all invaluable skills that not all students can get.”

Kannan says he is working with Illinois Tech’s Career Services to expand Scarlet Data Studio to grant paid internships to 20 Illinois Tech students and match them with 12 mentors next summer. He says he hopes these numbers grow each year.

“We hope that every Illinois Tech student who wants to go into software engineering can do at least one paid internship before they graduate,” he says. “We can reach that vision by helping more students find existing internships and by creating new internships.”

Photo: Illinois Tech alumnus Vinesh Kannan (CS ’19)