A photo of a man standing outside holding a piece of paper with the BMW logo on it.
VCU mechanical engineering sophomore Mustafa Tewfig has already gotten hands-on experience in the automotive world at BMW through the College of Engineering’s co-op program. (Courtesy College of Engineering)

Through VCU Engineering program, undergrad gets hands-on-the-wheel experience at BMW

Instead of classes, Mustafa Tewfig spent a semester-long co-op taking a deep drive into the automotive industry he wants to join.

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Growing up in Northern Virginia, Mustafa Tewfig seemed to always be around tools and construction equipment. In that environment, a love of cars flourished – and a Virginia Commonwealth University program is accelerating his career path in the automotive industry.

Tewfig, who is studying mechanical engineering in the VCU College of Engineering, has gotten significant hands-on experience in the auto world through the college’s co-op program. In a rotation that began in fall 2022 at BMW Spartanburg in South Carolina, Tewfig zipped around a test track on some days and worked as a technician taking apart cars on other days.

Unlike a traditional internship, in which students find a summer position or work part-time around classes, a co-op offers engineering experience at a full-time job performed during an academic semester. Co-op rotations, which occur at a company instead of taking classes, last around five months and offer real-world learning. In addition to expanding their skills, students expand their professional network and can set themselves up for post-graduation employment.

“It was a match made in heaven,” Tewfig said of his BMW co-op. “I enjoyed working in the industry immensely, and I’m totally looking forward to the day I can stay in the industry permanently.”

As a member of the powertrain analysis team at the BMW facility, Tewfig had a truly fast-paced job: He drove prototype cars “dynamically,” which basically means getting the most out of a vehicle’s capability and pushing its limits. BMW paid him to drive cars during rigorous tests meant to spot and address any performance issues. Meetings were often held on a test track rather than in an office.

When not behind the wheel, Tewfig had the opportunity to work on cars as a technician.

“It was incredibly cool to work on prototype vehicles that have some new, unheard-of technology,” he said. “Oftentimes, I would have to figure out my own methods, which is a good skill to have for an engineer … being a critical thinker and a problem-solver.”

The co-op was a learning experience in other ways. Tewfig lived on his own in another state, and the experience opened his eyes to the power of social media. He used it to establish a professional network, forge connections with coworkers and uncover job opportunities around the globe.

The co-op also took Tewfig, whose parents are from Sudan, on travels throughout the South.

“Most of my coworkers were either from Germany or from South Carolina,” he said. “While I learned from them how to adapt to the local culture, they also learned from me.”

Among the highlights of his BMW co-op was a trip to Alabama’s legendary Talladega Superspeedway, where Tewfig and a coworker hit 158 mph in the BMW XM on the racetrack.

“We went so fast that the car felt like a private jet on the runway that was ready for take-off, despite the fact that it was extremely planted and surprisingly quiet,” Tewfig said. “The XM is a marvel of engineering, as well as the X5, X6 and their variants.”

After his fall rotation ended, he has returned to the Spartanburg facility for subsequent rotations that will run through this December.

Tewfig plans to pursue a master’s degree in mechatronics or automotive engineering, and he said the co-op experience has given him a better idea of what he wants to do in the automotive world. Instead of manufacturing, he wants to focus on areas such as validation and integration of driving dynamics, powertrains, noise and vibration harshness, automotive electronics, and research and development.

Tewfig highly recommends the co-op experience to other students, noting both the professional and personal growth.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the relationships I formed with my full-time coworkers,” he said. “I also enjoy the relationships I developed with my fellow co-op/interns. They are my lifelong best friends.”