Nearly every aspect of life has been affected by the spread of coronavirus. Summer internships, often seen by most students as a head start to a post-graduate job, are no exception.
According to a study by talent-acquisition software company Yello, summer internships are falling through in sizeable numbers. The company surveyed more than 900 college students to find out how the global pandemic has affected internships. According to the survey, 35% of student internships have been cancelled, and 24% have gone virtual.
Georgia Tech's Serve-Learn-Sustain (SLS) program, which offers students from all colleges opportunities to collaborate with diverse partners on key sustainability challenges, is continuing to provide internship opportunities for students amid this global crisis. The third summer of the internship program, which kicked off last week, provides partners throughout Georgia with support and resources while also providing students with practical experience in applying the knowledge and skills they have learned at Georgia Tech to address some of the most pressing issues of our time. Through a rigorous application and interview process, the program connected 44 students with employers this summer — SLS’s largest cohort since the program’s inception in 2017. Students are interning with government, community, nonprofit, academic, and business partners through SLS and its collaborators, the Georgia SMART Community Corps Program and the Sea Level Sensor Project. The internship program also fulfills a requirement for SLS’s Innovating for Social Impact program. “We appreciate the additional leadership training and mentoring that SLS provides our Smart Community Corps students. It is great that SLS is able to provide this content virtually and have the students still feel connected with each other,” said Debra Lam, managing director of Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation.
All students in the program intern either full time or part time, and participate in a summer seminar for audit credit. The seminar introduces students to grassroots sustainability innovation and guides them through reflection and professional development. In response to COVID-19, SLS worked with all partners to quickly pivot the program. "When the internship application and interview process began back in January, no one could have anticipated the current situation with COVID-19," said Kristina Chatfield, SLS program and operations manager. "Student interns were being offered their summer placements the first week that students moved off campus, and we had no way of knowing at that time what would transpire. Within a few weeks, working in collaboration with our program partners and internship hosts, we were able to develop a plan to host the internship program entirely online."
Internship partners adapted their projects as needed, and the seminar was revised to address the role of grassroots innovation in times of crisis. The seminar itself has shifted in format to include a mix of small group discussions and guest lectures — two from the Center for Career Discovery and Development and three from partners who are doing powerful social impact work. The small groups will give students an opportunity to work closely together throughout the summer to learn about and support each other’s work. Groups will be facilitated by SLS staff and by Georgia Tech’s Executive Director of Community Relations Chris Burke. "We hope the students are able to draw on the seminar program both to enrich their understanding of social innovation and systems change and to expand their professional networks across a broad spectrum of organizations doing work to make the society we currently live in — and the one that will emerge post-COVID-19 — more sustainable and just,” said Ruth Yow, SLS service learning and partnerships specialist, who is co-leading the seminar with Sagdrina Jalal from SLS’s partner organization, the Center for Civic Innovation.
“The students have just been invaluable to what we’re doing. The work that they’ve done and the interest that they’ve shown in this has been terrific,” said Tom Johnson, project manager for the Memory Project of Coffee County, which is hosting interns for the second summer in a row.
An initiative from the Coffee County Historical Society, the Memory Project is creating an oral history from residents who lived through the integration of public schools in the early 1960s-70s. “What Georgia Tech is doing in the SLS program is just outstanding,” Johnson said. “It prepares them for life after Georgia Tech that in some ways the normal — or ‘typical student’— just wouldn’t get Johnson was introduced to Georgia Tech and Serve-Learn-Sustain in 2016 through Wayne Clough, president emeritus of Georgia Tech and former secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Clough is from the city of Douglas in Coffee County. He took an interest in the Memory Project and believed that departments on campus would be able to help.
Internship partner Katie O’Connor, senior city planner for Woodstock, GA, said the shift to remote work for their Smart Communities Challenge project was a timely one. “Our internship is research-focused and the project is a planning project with actual technology being implemented,” O’Connor said. “This is a great time to start a remote internship because much of the research only requires a computer and internet connection.” Georgia Tech’s initiative on Smart Cities and Inclusive Innovation develops innovative approaches to shaping resilient and sustainable communities. The City of Woodstock will develop both a masterplan and a Smart Corridor Study for optimizing infrastructure needs and modeling land use changes using a grant funded from Georgia Smart.
A few summer projects shifted in scope to address the new virtual work environment or to focus on challenges related to COVID-19. Many projects involved direct work with communities to gather information and develop tools and resources. In their various internships, students will focus on developing new ways for organizations to connect virtually with community members and share information about COVID-19. For example, Global Growers Network (GGN) works with refugees in Clarkston, Stone Mountain, and Decatur to support community agriculture, and also with a network of independently managed farms and garden sites in and around metro Atlanta. The internship project at GGN has shifted to incorporate collecting and sharing COVID-19 resources on safety protocols related to community gardening. "In response to COVID-19, GGN has scaled up our efforts to help growers in our network grow as much food as possible — both for their families and for local marketplaces,” said Yarrow Koning, GGN’s community development manager. “GGN is a land-based organization and not all activities can be conducted virtually. However, GGN has worked to move our internship opportunities to remote work,” Koning said. “The SLS intern working with us this summer will be creating a toolkit of best practices for our community garden sites to include new protocol on food safety and COVID-19 prevention we've developed over the last few months." Additional partners, such as the Center for Civic Innovation and the Center for Sustainable Communities, will now have their student interns working on resilience planning related to the community impact of COVID-19.
Rachel Dekom, an undergraduate majoring in history, technology, and society, has participated in a variety of SLS programs. Dekom interned with Global Growers last summer and is working this summer with Carrie’s Closet, which is a mobile clothing bank that provides foster care children with quality clothing and hygiene products. “SLS has changed my life,” Dekom said. “I came to Georgia Tech with a passion for the environment, but no clear idea about how to combine that passion with my skill set in a way that would truly be effective. [SLS] has taught me that creating sustainable communities means first listening to the actual needs of those communities, being willing to let go of preconceptions and ego to really figure out what the problems are and what solutions are actually viable.”
The Summer 2020 Internship Program is funded in part through generous contributions from Anne and Wayne Clough, the Center for Career Discovery and Development, the Institute for Leadership and Social Impact, the Strategic Energy Institute, and The Turner Foundation, which supported an internship that helps advance its mission to protect and restore our natural systems – the air, land, and water – on which all life depends.
For more coverage of Georgia Tech’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, please visit our Responding to Covid-19 page.