Students Explore Internships in CCE Pioneer Valley Summer Program
By Keith Wine '12, Contributing Writer
Instead of going home like most of their peers, 30 Amherst students spent the summer interning with 24 non-profit organizations in the Pioneer Valley in the Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer. Housed for free in Newport House and compensated for their time with a $2,000 stipend, the students participated in the third year of the program that is part of a broader effort by the Center for Community Engagement (CCE) to reach out to the surrounding communities and increase the amount of interaction and exchange between the College and its neighbors. Kenneth Koopmans, the Manager of Internship Programs at the CCE, summed up the goal of the program by saying, “What we’re really trying to do is incorporate students, faculty and community partners in the learning and teaching process. We’re trying to help faculty bring in and teach with community connections. Ultimately, we’re trying to mutually engage with surrounding communities.”

This year, students went through three days of intensive training before plunging into their various internships. For many students, this was the first time they had worked a full-time job, especially in a professional environment. Interns worked Monday through Friday, nine to five — a real 40-hour workweek. They worked with many different organizations, from hospitals to organizations working with impoverished youth to non-profits working with international labor law, and many others. According to Koopmans, one of the things that makes the program so effective is that it allows students accepted into the program to apply only for internships in the internship pool that interest them. This allows each student to tailor his experience to his own interests and makes for a much more individually enriching summer.

The program presents interns with the opportunity to learn many of the skills that most students do not pick up until after entering the work force. To be admitted to the program and thus be allowed to apply to internships, students must show that they can competently assemble a résumé and conduct themselves professionally and convincingly in a job interview. Once they are actually at their job sites, students have to learn how to work in a professional environment, how to get along with coworkers and their bosses, and they also have to learn new hard skills such as research, working with databases, compiling reports, aggregating data and so on.

In addition to honing these abilities, many students who participated in the program reported feeling that the work they were doing was meaningful and beneficial. Ruqian “Qianqian” Chen ’13 worked for a non-profit called Verité that works with multinational corporations and audits their overseas facilities to make sure they are staying in line with a given nation’s labor laws. Chen did a lot of research about changes to labor laws in various countries and updated the organization’s reports on international labor laws, violations and issues. After a few weeks of researching all day five days a week, she began to feel slightly bored with her work, but after thinking about it a little, realized that the work she was doing, even if it was sometimes tedious, was actually reaching out to the organization’s clients. Her boss trusted her with real and meaningful work that was destined to go out into the world under Verité´s name. Chen remarked, “Attitude matters most, not what you’re doing. I try to just learn from what I’m doing, no matter what it is.”

Narendra Joshi ’13, on the other hand, worked at Holyoke Health Center, which specializes in working with those in the Holyoke Area who cannot afford regular medical care, many of whom are on Medicaid. He worked most of the summer gathering material safety data sheets and making them internally available and easily accessible on the organization’s website. The work may seem mundane, but it is important to keeping employees safe and complying with Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations (violations can result in huge fines), and Joshi felt that his superiors genuinely appreciated the work he was doing. In addition to that sense of purpose and gratitude, he also felt that “the internship gave [him] time to explore things that [he’s] interested in, learn some computer skills, research, etc.”

The organizations that sponsor interns also benefit a great deal from the Pioneer Valley program. The most evident of these benefits is that they get free labor for two months, but there is much more that an intern can bring to these organizations. Aron Goldman, Executive Director of The Springfield Institute, emphasized how interns are involved with the institute’s most important projects, how they enable small-non profits to do a lot more with their usually limited resources and how valuable they are for bringing fresh perspectives to the table. “In short, interns extend our capacity and help us realize our mission in demonstrable ways,” shared Goldman.

The program also has significant positive potential for the College as a whole. By funding these internships, the school is investing in students’ education and producing more well-rounded graduates who have seen and understood more than just what lies within the Amherst bubble. However, equally important is the fact that the Pioneer Valley program creates mutual engagement with surrounding communities. The organizations and the communities to which the CCE sends interns every summer benefit from the hard work of Amherst students, but Amherst can also benefit from these relationships as they cultivate connections and lead to collaboration with faculty and the wider college community.

The Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer program is still very young, having just completed its third year, and Koopmans only recently took the helm in February. Considering the relative youth of the program and its new leadership, Koopmans hopes to institute many changes within the next few years in order to create an increasingly rewarding experience for students. His current ideas include expanding the size of the program to work with more students and more organizations in the Pioneer Valley. He also wants to promote better evaluation through surveys for both students and sponsors, improve the social cohesion of the interns and include more dorm events throughout the summer. The most exciting prospect for change is still in the idea and planning phase — alumni mentors. Participants in the CCE-sponsored Amherst Select Internship Program, which funds students to intern outside of the Pioneer Valley, already have these mentors, who have proven to be a success. Each student would be paired with an alumnus or other mentor with whom they can meet for lunch, discuss their experiences and develop relationships that will help them in the future.

Issue 01, Submitted 2010-09-02 16:24:23