By Co-founder & CEO, Eric Schwarz
One of the best things about launching College for Social Innovation this summer has been the chance to work with two founding interns, UNH undergrad Carolyn Riley (Communication and Women's Studies) and UNH grad student Matt Wilhelm (Political Science). As a rising senior, Carolyn in many ways had a chance to be a pilot participant in our program, teaching me and others a ton about working with talented and enthusiastic millennials who are new to the social sector. Before joining us on June 1, Carolyn had managed an ice cream shop, led some student clubs, and even worked as a stand-up comic; but by her own admission she was brand new to an office. Following is a brief conversation exploring the experience from Carolyn's perspective, as the "intern" or "apprentice," and from my perspective as her mentor and supervisor.
ES: So what was it like being the first "intern" for an organization that is all about the power of interns, but is also brand new? I mean when you took this job we had no name, no money, and no place lined up where you could work from.
CR: I think every student that has had an internship has a positive take away afterwards if they feel like their opinion was valued at that organization, regardless of their “status” there. That’s definitely the biggest aspect of this job that I have been pleasantly surprised by. Since we are so student-focused, and you are trying to get into the minds of 20 -year -olds today, being the first intern here (“the guinea pig”) has been great. I have learned basic things about organizing my work, I've learned how to introduce myself and how to write a marketing plan; I've learned so much more about giving and getting feedback. And I feel like the organization has been able to reflect on the structure of the fellowships we will offer and how to have the greatest impact.
ES: Were there content areas where you feel like you learned new things, or was the learning mostly around workplace skills or so-called "21st Century Skills"?
CR: Being exposed to ample discussion and rich dialogue about education reform taught me a ton and led me to reflect a lot on what I have experienced and to evaluate my skill-set. When talking about new graduates entering the workforce it hits home for me because that’s where me and my peers will be one year from now, which is not a very long ways away. While it has been humbling for me to see that I wasn’t as prepared as I wish I had been when I began, it has motivated me to improve as well as work to normalize these kinds of quality internship experiences. It has also given me even more pride to say I go to UNH, as they are the first school to partner with College for Social Innovation, and I can authentically communicate with students there about how much this has shaped me as an employee, as well as a student.
ES: Do you have any advice to future participants in the CfSI "Social Innovation Fellowship"?
CR: My advice to the first class of College for Social Innovation fellows would be to ask questions and ask for feedback. Being able to accept criticism and feedback graciously, and then channel that as you improve your work will take you much farther than if you take it with a bad attitude, or even worse if you don’t ask for feedback at all. The umbrella of this organization is that your mentors and supervisors want to invest in you, and they have your best interests at heart. Additionally, I would advise students to enter as though they are a new hire. Don’t think of yourself as "just a student intern." While it's important to “respect your elders,” don’t demote yourself, or overly discount your value. If you view yourself as a member of the organization you will contribute more thoughtfully. Know that you’re there for a reason and don’t be afraid to authentically engage with the more senior staff, and ask clarifying questions. Strong mentors and supervisors will recognize and appreciate this behavior.
ES: I think that's such an important observation. My advice to future fellows is to continually search for that perfect balance of humility and confidence. You have a lot to learn so it's great to soak up as much feedback and wisdom and experience as you can. But it's also true that throughout history young people have been in the lead of most social movements. You have a lot to teach and to offer as well.
CR: You and I had a great feedback session that we have both reflected on multiple times. From my perspective, you communicate when things are “teachable moments” or you provide specific ways of improvement highlighting the benefits to everyone involved. While I have probably never been managed so closely than this job, I have also yet to be so positively challenged.
ES: I have loved working with you, and a big part of that is your combination of being totally new to the this kind of work, but also your enthusiasm to learn and to contribute. You started 11 weeks ago and I would say the difference in what you were able to contribute between the first few weeks and the last few weeks is night and day. That's a tribute to you and a tribute to the power of experiential learning.
CR: You have talked a lot about your "Gary Hart experience" as an intern when you were 19 years old. This has been my Gary Hart experience and I am excited to open up this kind of learning to millions of kids my age.