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MIT sophomores connect with alumni mentors in professional and leadership development program

UPOP annual workshop lets sophomores take a deep dive into teamwork, creative problem-solving, and networking in preparation for their future careers.
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Students laugh and stand around a table while building a model skyscraper with foam and pencils.
A workshop module known as "The Skyscraper" allows UPOP students to get to know their teammates and compete to build the tallest viable structure out of foam, pencils, and tape.
Photo: Andrew Okyere
A mentor and student sitting and laughing together amid others doing the same
UPOP staff are supported by a dedicated group of mentors — most of whom are MIT alumni — during the program's Team Training Workshop.
Photo: Prabhakar Kafle
The full, very large group of students and mentors standing and smiling inside Walker Memorial, holding UPOP signs.
UPOP's Team Training Workshop is as intensive as it is valuable for both MIT sophomores and alumni. It boosts resumes, fosters connections, and gives students a learning experience they wouldn’t have outside UPOP.
Photo: Julia Xia

Team Training Workshop (TTW) is the cornerstone event for students in MIT's Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP), bringing students and alumni mentors together over three exciting sessions for an experiential learning experience that feels like summer camp.

UPOP is a yearlong academic course for MIT sophomores that aids their professional development and helps them prepare for summer internships or other professional experiences — often their first — and for their future careers. UPOP was founded 21 years ago with the recognition that MIT students receive best-in-class technical education, but aren’t given the opportunity to develop the softer skills that will help them succeed in the workplace. 

“I decided to join UPOP because … I want to enter into industry, and I feel like, in addition to the technical skills that I know I'll have at graduation, I also want to build more of those interpersonal skills and team skills with other people around my age as well, who I'll often be working with, and getting advice from people who've already been through all of those different kinds of ins and outs of industry and how to work together,” says Isa Liggans, a current UPOP student majoring electrical engineering and computer science.

Throughout the UPOP program, students engage in skill-building workshops and one-on-one coaching. In the fall, students complete four milestones: resume and cover letter crafting, networking, internship search, and practice interviews. In the spring, they attend workshops on professional communication, project planning, navigating microaggressions, and receiving feedback.

UPOP also connects students with its exclusive employer network, providing them access to a wide range of networking and employment opportunities.

Between semesters is TTW, an intensive experiential learning opportunity that places students in small teams assigned to mentors representing a wide array of industries, most of whom are MIT alums. Teams work together on a series of activities focused on building the skills students will need in the workplace, regardless of what their MIT course is. TTW’s unique program immerses sophomores in professional development, while still prioritizing camaraderie and fun.

The UPOP staff are supported by a dedicated group of mentors, most of whom are MIT alumni, during the fall and spring milestones and TTW. Mentors invest significant time and energy to support UPOP students, and many have been returning to TTW for years, traveling to campus from faraway locations.

“My positive experiences … as a UPOP student, plus the coaching support I received from UPOP staff that helped me secure future internships and even full-time roles, meant that it only seemed natural to want to give back as a mentor,” says Molly Tracy ’16, a mentor and 2016 UPOP alumna. “I continue to find it very gratifying to see students grow in skills that I consistently see as being the differentiator for success in the workplace. This is especially the case for me as a Milestone Mentor. I get to see students I’ve worked with over the course of the fall semester flourish at TTW. These students get clarity on what they want to pursue in their careers, take their first steps to networking, or gain confidence to work in a team. I can’t wait to come back next year!”

Mentors serve as leaders on their assigned teams, providing advice and guidance for students on workshop activities and beyond. They also hold roundtable discussions on a variety of topics, such as negotiating job offers, staying true to your values in your chosen career, what it’s like to work in specific industries, and getting ahead early in one’s career. 

“Working with a mentor is a more practical approach to thinking about teamwork and collaboration,” says Aaliya Hussain, a current UPOP student who is majoring in management. “And I think that one thing that my mentor has helped with, by facilitating the whole table discussions, is just to allow us to connect as a team a little bit better, and get to know each other and work better with each other. And I think another thing is that it's also very interesting to hear the perspective of somebody who's very seasoned at working in different teams.”

TTW is comprised of several training modules — mostly led by MIT faculty and alumni — and culminates in a team presentation.

The Skyscraper module kicks off the event, allowing students to get to know their teammates and compete to build the tallest viable structure out of foam, pencils, and tape. From there, students learn about how to build an effective team, how different thinking and learning styles affect team dynamics and communications, and go through a negotiations exercise where students are assigned the role of an employee pivotal to the future path of a company going through an evolutionary change.

They then learn about the importance of creating consensus while working on technical specifications for a new app, go through rounds of practicing their elevator pitches as part of a UPOP staff-led networking presentation, and receive guidance on making effective presentations in an engaging session with coach and former professional actor Peter Bubriski.

“This was a great experience for me, because in the future, I want to be building high-performance teams who work on really cool projects and who build really cool products,” says Eric Shen, a current UPOP student who is majoring in artificial intelligence and decision making. “And so I guess this was a little preview for me, in terms of where I get to practice communicating with different members, identifying the strengths of each member, and then allocating different tasks that best suits them. And then when you're working in a team, it's not about how one individual performs, but how everybody collectively performs to accomplish the bigger mission. So, it was really fun for me to do that.”

The tips and skills students learn and develop throughout these modules prepare them for the team project announced at the start of TTW. Groups are tasked with creating a sustainability plan for a new green dorm on MIT’s campus, and must meet specific stakeholder needs while staying on budget.

Each day, teams are given an allotted time to work on the project, which they present to a panel of mentors serving as judges on the final day. The goal is for students to consider the facts they are presented with and come up with the most effective solution possible, utilizing newly honed skills in teamwork, creative problem-solving, and communicating effectively.

“I believe that the most important part of it is that you get to try it and do it and then reflect on this experience and what you learned from it,” says Sasha Horokh, a current UPOP student who is majoring in mathematics. “Because it's one thing to think you know how to do that, but another thing to actually do it and realize how to.”

UPOP hosts an employer networking event after the second and third sessions of TTW, giving students an additional opportunity to practice the skills they learned over several days of training modules and team projects. Not only are current UPOP students able to attend the event, but all UPOP alumni (current juniors and seniors) are invited as well. Dozens of employers, including many MIT alumni, attend, giving students a chance to network with people in their desired company or industry.

TTW is as intensive as it is valuable for both MIT sophomores and alumni. It boosts resumes, fosters connections, and gives students a learning experience they wouldn’t have outside UPOP.

As one mentor recalled a member of her team saying, “I came to TTW trying to figure out what type of engineer I wanted to be. I left wanting to figure out what type of person I wanted to be.”

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