Sergio Reyes, a computer science major at The University of Texas-Pan American, spent his summer internship working on a computer program that was so top secret, he couldn't see it run.
"I wrote the program, but I never saw it working with the actual data it was supposed to use because everything was classified," he said.
Reyes was one of four senior computer science students who spent summer internships at government agencies and a major corporation.
A native of San Benito, Reyes spent three months this summer at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M., developing a program to be used in case of an accident involving a nuclear weapon.
"These emergencies are called 'broken arrows,'" he said, noting the movie of the same name that has made the term well-known. "A special team is called out, called the ARG unit, Accident Response Group, and they troubleshoot. They go out there with laptops and they would run my program to help retrieve information."
The program Reyes wrote was designed to retrieve information about nuclear weapons under particular circumstances, such as weather conditions - information that is highly classified.
"This program helps people find that information very fast, because it's a high pressure situation," he said. "The program doesn't break down, it brings the information back really fast, and it helps them plan out everything."
Testing the program was somewhat complicated, however.
"I would create it (program), get somebody else to run it, and then they'd tell me, 'Well, this works and this doesn't,'" Reyes said. Then he would make the changes required to fix the bugs in the program and they'd run it again.
He added that now that he has returned to school, "They have my number, and they said if they did have any problems, that they would fly me in."
Sandia National Laboratories is a multiprogram laboratory of the U.S. Department of Energy managed by Sandia Corporation, a Lockheed Martin company. In addition to his work on the ARG computer program, Reyes also helped the scientists at the laboratory create a map for a robotic jeep and acted as an advisor on Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
"GIS is a fancy term for any software that will help you create a map," he said. "I have two and a half years of mapmaking training here at Pan Am, so I served as a translator between GIS experts and non-GIS users."
Mercedes Guzman, a computer science senior from Edinburg, spent time this summer in an internship at another high-profile location - the Pentagon.
During her 10-week internship with the Air National Guard, Guzman did some work on the World Wide Web.
"I designed a web page for a new travel system that they're implementing, a travel system that all the military is going to be using," Guzman said. "Right now, they (military travelers) have to fill out vouchers and other forms before they leave and when they come back to get reimbursed. This is going to be a little 'smart card' that they'll carry around with them. Everything will be done by the computer."
Guzman divided her time between the Pentagon and Andrews Air Force Base, working on the web page for the new system, which will be implemented first by 93 Air National Guard Units throughout the country, as well as doing data entry and attending meetings.
"I attended some pretty high-up meetings at the level of the Secretary of Defense," she said.
She had other offers for her first internship, including the Federal Aviation Administration and IBM, but said she "couldn't pass up the Pentagon."
"I learned so much," Guzman said of her internship experience. "Being an American, you take everything for granted - you don't think about how things work or what's going on behind the scenes, how different departments work. It was a real eye-opening experience."
Margarita Salas, a senior computer science major from Weslaco, also found herself spending time in meetings, in her case at a three-month internship with Xerox Corp. in Lewisville, Texas, near Dallas.
"When I went to the interview, they told me I was going to be support, provide online service and troubleshooting over the phone," Salas said. "But when I got there, there was a change of plans, because one of the administrators needed some help, so I became her assistant."
Salas' internship gave her a broader perspective of the workings of Xerox. She had responsibility for shipment of customer kits for a new software package, and she attended monthly meetings with specialists from the office in Rochester, N.Y., on how to fix problems that came up most frequently on the online help lines, and daily with phone analysts to troubleshoot particular problems that came up with customers.
"They took me to all the different departments," she said. "It was a really good experience for me."
All three interns were asked to stay on at their internship locations, come back after graduation, or both. Salas said she plans to return to Xerox for full-time employment after graduation, and Guzman said she was asked to continue her internship into the fall semester, but she wanted to return to school and finish her degree. She also was offered a permanent job by one of the contractors that supplies computer employees for the Air National Guard.
Reyes also was offered a position as a contractor.
"They said I have a position there (Sandia) if I want it, and they also offered me contract work," Reyes said, adding that Sandia also offered to put him through a program there that would pay for his master's degree at a number of universities around the United States. He said he would like to pursue graduate study at Stanford University if he is accepted for admission there.
The interns were highly praised by their supervisors at their internships.
"We're getting very positive feedback," said Pearl Brazier, chair of the Department of Computer Science at UT Pan American. "Employers have been very pleased. The students' work ethic is something that the employers have remarked on."
Salas' two supervisors, Lionel Spears and Simone Taylor of Xerox, wrote in a post-internship report that she had made "a tremendous contribution," and highly recommended her for a full-time position at Xerox.
"She is very professional, and she represents Xerox very well," they wrote.
Hector Solis of Roma, who also interned at Xerox in Lewisville, was praised by his supervisors, Bob Romanowski and Wayne Mebane, who also recommended him for a permanent position at Xerox after graduation.
"Hector was an impressive summer intern who took his job responsibilities, as well as the intern opportunity itself, very seriously," they wrote. "He was eager and quick to learn, and as a result, played an essential role on the team. Management, his mentor and his peers valued Hector as a true contributor to our business."
Guzman's internship at the Pentagon also garnered praise from her supervisor.
"Her performance demonstrated her maturity and acceptance of responsibilities," Maj. Milagros Santiago-Madera, program coordinator, wrote of Guzman. "She was extremely flexible, accommodating to our many requests to change schedule and priorities."
Reyes so impressed his supervisor that he was nominated for recognition as Sandia's Student Internship Program Outstanding Student for 1998.
"Sergio is leaving Sandia and the Department of Energy with a highly valuable application that will be used extensively in the field by emergency responders," wrote Perry D'Antonio, department manager for the High Consequence Surety Engineering Department at Sandia and Reyes' supervisor. "He exemplifies the reason Sandia has a student internship program: he made the most of all opportunities presented to him, was a joy to work with, and should be considered for eventual Sandia employment after his graduation from college."