What I've Learned in my Internship (and Out of the Classroom!)

I am standing in a crowded elevator, steps away from reporting for my first day as College for Social Innovation's summer intern. I remember feeling similarly my first day of college: intimidated, excited, and completely out of place. I try not to let the first jitters get the best of me as I remind myself to breathe and be confident. "Fake it until you make it," I repeat to myself. I start my day by constructing a work-plan with my supervisor and grow anxious about whether I will ever reach my goals and finish impending projects. I begin to grasp the truth for myself that success in academia, GPA, and bookish knowledge are not the only ingredients in the coveted recipe for success. This work won't just be for the eyes of my professor. My work will be seen by my teammates and the public, which makes it feel more important and influential. No classroom could have prepared me for this. 

A new approach to talent challenges in the social sector: College for Social Innovation

Joined at The Boston Foundation by more than 100 colleagues, supporters, and social sector leaders representing 70 different organizations, we had the opportunity to discuss Looming Challenges and Promising Opportunities in Boston’s Social Sector - what they are, why we all need to come together to address them, and how our model will support  that effort.

Back to School: How Positive Internships Impact the Classroom

It’s the first week of Fall! This has always been one of my favorite times of the year. Maybe because I have been on a student’s schedule for my entire life, the start of a new academic year is when I reflect and make my “New Year’s Resolutions”. Personally, I am super excited to be entering my final year at the University of New Hampshire; but one of the things I quickly noticed as the fall semester began, is that I am not in the majority. My friends and peers are excited to be the big kids on campus but there is an overarching fear of “the unknown.” What are we going to do when we graduate?

The Excitement is the "Sausage Making"!

Being at the founding stages of a startup like College for Social Innovation (CfSI) is a feeling unlike any other. Taking an innovative idea and transforming it into a scalable model to drive change is no small feat – you need a strong, dedicated team, who can communicate and work well together. While there is a lot of pressure at these early stages, there are also many rewards as you reach new milestones and see your team grow, along with its mission. 

Being a Service Year Fellow.jpg

By Graduate Fellow, Matt Wilhelm

Ten years ago this month, I took my first full-time job after college as an AmeriCorps member serving with City Year. Not only was I given a structured opportunity to put my idealism to work as a tutor and mentor in a middle school and have a positive, measured impact on the students we served, but I also learned a lot about leadership.

What I lacked in a paycheck ($250 weekly stipend) was compensated by a clear sense of purpose, project and people management experience, access to leaders across all sectors, a great mentor, and a community of colleagues that would become lifelong friends. It was the best professional decision I ever made.

Following my two terms as an AmeriCorps member, I had the opportunity to join the founding teams of two organizations – ServeNext.org and Calling All Crows – both aimed at creating more opportunities for young Americans to serve.

Working on the startup team of a new social venture is an amazing experience, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

It requires long hours, an unwavering commitment to the mission of the new organization as well as to your co-workers, and the ability to juggle multiple projects – especially those for which you feel totally unqualified to lead.

It’s exhilarating. It’s exhausting. It’s humbling. But, ultimately, when you see vision become reality – it becomes totally worth it.

So if committing to a year of national service and joining the startup team of a new social venture doesn’t scare you, but rather sounds like the challenge for which you’ve been desperately searching, then look no further…

College for Social Innovation is looking to hire two Service Year Fellows to start full-time work on or before Oct. 1, 2015 and to work in the fellowship role for nine months with an option to renew for up to two years.

Service Year Fellows will report directly to the Managing Director or another senior staff member; work closely with Eric Schwarz, co-founder and CEO of College for Social Innovation; and play an integral role in the organization’s startup operations.

Service Year Fellows will help College for Social Innovation build capacity in the following areas:

  • Develop comprehensive marketing plan to reach multiples audiences utilizing varied media;

  • Support development/fundraising plan including foundation, corporate, and individual giving;

  • Build new organizational systems (i.e. human resources, technical support, training, evaluation, etc.);

  • Develop partnerships with colleges and universities, including recruitment, selection, and training; and

  • Develop partnerships with social sector organizations, including recruitment, selection, and training.

To apply to become a Service Year Fellow with College for Social Innovation, please click here.

For more information on the opportunity, please email me (matt.wilhelm@collegeforsocialinnovation.org). I’d be excited to talk with you about what it’s like to work startup on College for Social Innovation and/or what it’s like to do a service year. The two together, in my opinion, are the perfect combination!

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.

Co-founder's Case for Experiential Learning

By Co-founder & CEO, Eric Schwarz

Just after lunch on a hot June day in 1980, I parked my beat up Chevy Chevette in front of Senator Gary Hart's campaign headquarters on Denver's High Street.  In just three days I had driven from my home in New York City, fresh off a fun but pretty unproductive freshman year in college.  I was excited and a little nervous about an internship on the re-election campaign of a U.S. Senator and I was happy to be re-united with my girlfriend, who was attending Colorado College. I tucked in my shirt, rang the doorbell and introduced myself. My first assignment: mowing the lawn behind the campaign's Victorian-era headquarters. My second assignment? Three full days of counting and rolling coins that had been dropped in donation cans at a recent political convention.

As the summer wore on, I started getting meatier assignments.  I drafted letters to the editor. Then I helped research and write a position paper on Gary Hart's views on supporting small businesses.  Linda Ronstadt and Steven Stills and Jimmy Buffett all volunteered to perform benefit concerts and I helped to organize ticket sales -- and got to attend the concerts. By mid-summer I was totally engaged in the campaign and I called my college, the University of Vermont, and said I planned to stay in Colorado through election day and would be withdrawing from college for the fall semester.  The next three months were amazing.  I went from organizing benefit concerts and helping with anything that needed doing around campaign HQ to organizing college students all across the state.  By election day in November I was in communication with hundreds of active college volunteers, all of us pulling voters to the polls at dozens of colleges, from the state's flagship university in Boulder to small colleges across Colorado's western slope.  And Gary Hart won, withstanding the Reagan landslide of 1980, and creating momentum for a later presidential run.  I discovered a sense of purpose and built a network for life.  

As I look back on that experience now, I can say with confidence that I learned more in those four months of organizing than I did across four years of college classes.  I learned more about myself and about working with people, but also more about writing and public speaking and analyzing numbers, like voter registration and turnout numbers.  I ended up majoring in history and political science, and as I learned more theory in the classroom I was able to connect it to my real-world experiences on the campaign trail.  

I also realize that I had an experience that was available to only small handful of my peers.  My internship was unpaid and uncredited. I as one of the fortunate few with family that could connect me to an US Senator and that could cover me financially as I volunteered for a cause I believed in. Most of friends back at UVM -- many of them the children of dairy farmers or small business people -- had no such opportunities.

College for Social Innovation, which I am helping to launch this summer, is motivated by a desire to make experiences like my Gary Hart experience broadly available.  Today gap years and unpaid and uncredited summer internships help drive a huge opportunity divide between upper and lower-income college students.  As wrote about in my book, The Opportunity Equation, the opportunity gap is already a chasm by the time kids get to college.   

The gap is going to keep getting bigger during the college year if we don't find a way to make great internships and fellowships a core part of the college experience for all students, not just a few.

I invite you to engage with College for Social Innovation and to help us get bigger and re-imagine the current college model -- making it less expensive, more relevant, and more experiential.  Check out our website and our plan.  Connect with us on social media. Encourage your college or alma mater to partner with us. Nominate an innovative social sector organization to host one of our "Social Innovation Fellows" (these are current college students who will be earning full credit for a semester of experiential learning).  Donate.  And spread the word.  And if you are in or near Boston on Sept. 16, please join us for a kick-off event at Boston City Hall ("front lawn") from 5 to 6:30pm.