Amid COVID-19, Government Seeks Virtual Summer Interns

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Virtual internships with the government are a possibility for students.

When I was growing up, my father, who was a lifelong National Institute of Standards and Technology employee, would encourage both my older sister and me to consider taking on summer internships with the federal government. My sister did that, and I remember her getting up really early to ride into work with my dad. Later she would tell me that she really enjoyed the experience.

When it came time for me to get a summer job, my aunt had just opened up a new restaurant in my hometown. So I spent my summers flipping pizza dough and building towering soft-serve ice cream cones for my friends. I had a really good time there at my first job, though I sometimes regret missing out on government service.

When I was in college, government agencies sometimes came to campus looking for summer interns and many of my friends took them up on their offers. I had friends interning at everything from the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian to the National Security Agency and the FBI. A few of them even ended up working in government service after graduation. But one of the things that all of those internships had in common was the fact that they required the intern to commute into a federal building every day, just like a regular employee.

So what is a talented college student with an interest in government service supposed to do now that COVID-19 has chased even regular federal employees out of their offices? The government has an answer with its Virtual Student Federal Service, or VSFS.

I learned about the VSFS in talking with members of the State Department’s Bureau of Information Resource Management during a recent webinar. VSFS is managed through their Office of eDiplomacy, though the program covers just about every federal agency that wants to participate. The program actually got its start back in 2009, but has taken on a much greater emphasis today with the pandemic.

How it works is that in early June, federal agencies that needed virtual help from talented college students in a variety of areas submitted their internship proposals. And starting in July, college students can apply for the projects that most interest them. Unlike most three month internships, the virtual ones available through VSFS last for eight months, don’t require the intern to commute to an office and can be worked on at any time.

The number of available internship programs are up this year, with 660 projects from across the entire spectrum of federal agencies. For example, the National Park Service is looking for interns to help them track the migrations of bighorn sheep, while the Department of Defense needs digital content curators to organize documents about the history of the Army. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are looking to build and test virtual reality worlds and streamline programs designed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. There are so many amazing programs available, and all of them would shine like gold on a resume, plus make for an interesting summer.

Onboarding Virtual Interns

Most of the internship projects will require giving students some level of access to federal networks. In this case, efforts to fight the pandemic might streamline that onboarding process as well as making it easier for feds to securely communicate with their new interns. This is critical these days as both the interns and the feds themselves will likely be working from home.

While most federal agencies swung into full telecommuting in a very short period of time, that massive effort didn’t come without a few surprises. One of the feds who I spoke with from the Department of Education said one area that wasn’t considered in most continuity of operations planning was the badging and credentials offices. For most agencies, issuing credentials and personal identity verification, or PIV, cards was a face-to-face process prior to COVID-19. With the credentialing offices now closed, agencies needed to find a different way to onboard new employees, contractors and eventually the VSFS interns as well as provide them with secure communications and network access.

In many cases, private sector and agency information technology teams stepped up to quickly find ways to maintain security with everyone working from home and with most badging offices closed. One of the solutions was to use cloud-based multifactor authentication to get around the need to issue physical hardware and tokens. Cisco recently had its Duo Federal MFA and Duo Federal Access programs earn FedRAMP certification to support this effort. 

The Federal MFA program concentrates on authentication that meets federal regulations. And the Federal Access program adds even more security. It can additionally enforce role and location-based policies, biometric authentication and device hygiene requirements for even greater security.

For secure communications, the new ZevaCrypt solution allows feds to send encrypted email using their existing PIV infrastructure, even to those outside of their agencies like contractors or temporary interns. It’s pretty ingenious how it works within the current federal regulations for email communications, and does it without sending any actual information through the Zeva servers.

When a federal employee, like one of the new virtual intern’s supervisors, needs to send them email or other materials, they simply address the email like they normally would. ZevaCrypt searches its directory for the matching identities and sends back the appropriate certificates. The email is encrypted with those certificates and is sent to its destination. Once it arrives, the proper recipient can read the email without having to jump through decryption hoops like getting codes texted to them. From a recipient’s perspective, it’s little different from normal email, only it’s protected and encrypted from end-to-end while in transport.

“Finding the right PIV identity and assurance credentials are major problems when working across agencies or with contractors,” said Sam Andoni, president of Zeva. “ZevaCrypt automates the discovery of trusted, federated PIV credentials and selects the correct certificate for the highest assurance level available.”

Uncle Sam Needs You

So now we have the ability to quickly onboard new virtual interns, and ways for them to securely communicate with agency employees who themselves are going to be working remotely for the foreseeable future. And we have 660 amazing government programs this year that need the help of smart and talented interns.

If you’re a college student looking for something interesting and worthwhile to do over the summer and on into the fall, please check out the Virtual Student Federal Service. The programs this year are so diverse that you are sure to find something interesting. It will look great on a resume, and you will be helping out our nation during a time of great need. What better way to spend a summer? 

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys