Students focus on future through co-op experiences


Conor Gagliardi, a fifth-year computer science major, spent the fall semester on co-op at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

It took many years and various side ventures for fifth-year computer science major Conor Gagliardi to land a coveted co-op opportunity last fall at NASA’s Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Coming from an underprivileged family with parents who did not attend college, Gagliardi wasn’t sure he could continue to afford his classes, so in 2018 he joined the Army National Guard to help him cover tuition. He was deployed in 2020.

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RIT was recognized in the 2024 edition of U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges, which ranked its co-op and internship program fifth in the nation, rising six spots from last year.

His humanitarian relief work using drones to help victims of the Port of Beirut explosion piqued his interest in using unmanned systems.

Back at RIT, Gagliardi took classes outside his major, including a machine learning class that drew his attention to research. He also expanded his experience by taking a part-time job using computer vision and perception work in artistic projects. He spent the summer of 2023 as a National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates student at the University of Oklahoma studying vision-based drone swarms, which harkened back to his Army service.

All that led Gagliardi to one of the most technologically innovative centers in the world, where his breadth of knowledge has him programming rovers to move autonomously and working to help create the framework for the NASA SUITS Challenge, which gives opportunities to undergraduate students.

Without the co-op program at RIT, Gagliardi says he wouldn’t have had the foresight to expand his areas of expertise and become a qualified candidate for NASA.

“The co-op program had me thinking not only about the academic side, but also the professional development side,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken part-time jobs and gotten the experience to end up where I am right now.”

RIT’s co-op program is one of the oldest in the nation, beginning in 1912. More than 5,000 RIT students typically complete a co-op each year.

Third-year microelectronic engineering student Elissa Sainthil also used her fall co-op at Advanced Energy in Ronkonoma, N.Y., to solidify her career aspirations in a field with constantly progressing technology.

A second-generation RIT student, Sainthil credited RIT’s variety of majors, small class sizes, and friendly professors as the reason to follow in her mother’s academic footsteps to RIT. She is able to spend some time at home in Central Islip, N.Y., while working with Advanced Energy’s UltraVolt products during her co-op.

Sainthil has learned a lot about electrical engineering while also building on her education in microelectronics. She has been involved in testing and documenting high voltage power supplies with the company.

While learning about different projects, she has had supportive co-workers who have taken the time to explain how things work and have given her the time to fully understand the work.

Although she says the process of getting her first co-op position wasn’t always easy, the support system, specifically from the extracurricular group Women in Engineering @ RIT, is a big part of her success.

Her co-op adviser is also to thank for sending Sainthil’s résumé to companies, which resulted in interviews. During those interviews, Sainthil’s on-campus leadership experience stood out to potential employers. The experiences and resources available through RIT have given her the preparation and confidence needed once she heads into her professional life.

“Luckily, because of this co-op, I’ve had the ‘aha’ moment that yes, I picked the right major,” said Sainthil. “I also think because of this co-op I will want to work in the semiconductor manufacturing industry. This made me more prepared for when I go out into the real world.” 

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