Graduate Students Build Campus-Community Connections, Explore New Careers in Summer Internships

Authored on:

Sep 25, 2020
photo collage of intern headshots

For nine graduate students at the University of Iowa, this was not the summer internship they had anticipated. Unlike summer 2019, this second summer of the Humanities for the Public Good (HPG) internship program came with many unexpected twists and challenges. As the University of Iowa moved to virtual learning, interns joined partner organizations and took on new responsibilities just as many of those organizations—and the students’ own daily lives—changed dramatically. The internships are co-funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the UI Graduate College, as part of the multi-faceted Humanities for the Public Good graduate initiative hosted by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies.

Switching gears 

The interns worked with six area organizations: Hancher Auditorium, the University of Iowa Labor Center, the Center for Afrofuturist Studies in Iowa City, the African American Museum of Iowa, the National Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids, and Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development (IVRCD) in Amana. In many cases, the students' work necessarily morphed to reflect the virtual nature of the summer. Matthew Helm, who created a culinary guide to the Iowa Scenic Byway for IVRCD, for example, wasn’t able to travel to the town he was writing about and interview people in person. And Laura Hayes found herself creating workshops for Zoom instead of the hands-on activities that she and her mentor at the National Czech and Slovak Museum had imagined. (Read his blog post about Meskwaki Food Sovereignty.)

Constructed standing board for posting art, located outside of a building.

Others switched gears as the result of national events. Dellyssa Edinboro, a student in the College of Education’s Schools, Culture, and Society PhD Program, had planned to spend the summer creating community partnerships for the Center for Afrofuturist Studies (CAS), but after the murder of George Floyd, the organization’s focus was more immediate. “I am grateful to CAS because my responsibilities did not exist in a vacuum but in the moment I am living in,” Edinboro wrote in a blog post. “I wanted the opportunity to express my feelings—feelings of grief about the senseless murders of Black lives, feelings of optimism about the selfless actions of protesters who marched for change and accountability, feelings of appreciation for those whose creative and intellectual works clarified and supported my understanding of Blackness in America.

 

Connecting scholarship to real-world organizations

Despite the challenges of the summer and the fact that many of the interns never met their site partners or their fellow interns in person, the program provided camaraderie and community when urgently needed. One supervisor described how working with graduate student interns this summer was “a reminder of the hopefulness that we need to maintain through uncertainty.” And Jennifer Miller, a graduate student in the College of Education's Language, Literacy, and Culture PhD program, said that her internship with the African American Museum of Iowa was “hands down the best experience I have had since starting my doctoral program at the University of Iowa.” It helped her to refocus on why she had wanted to attend graduate school in the first place.

Image from an old lithograph of 19th century mill girls.

Similarly, Kassie Baron, a PhD student in English, was able to marry her scholarly research with her work at the UI Labor Center. “I successfully completed my comprehensive exams just before beginning this internship. The area of research that emerged from my preparation focused on literary representations of 19th century women’s labor and what they tell us about visions of the United States,” wrote Baron, who helped to organize a new program, the Iowa Women in Trades Network. “This internship has helped me recognize the ways my research connects to and affects the present, particularly when this information is accessible to the public.” (Read Baron's blog post that adroitly connects Melville's mill girls to Baron's work with the Labor Center.)

 

Community matters

Jennifer New, associate director of the Obermann Center and director of the HPG internship program, says that a happy but less anticipated benefit of the program has been how much students have learned about the local landscape. “I think graduate students have so little time and are given so little encouragement to learn about the area where they are living. Most of the interns have been delighted to get to see more of Iowa—such as the student last summer who visited more than 40 small towns in just eight weeks—and to better appreciate the wealth of cultural resources available to them both as citizens and as teachers.”

Jonathan Lack, a graduate student in Cinematic Arts who also interned with IVRCD, created a three-part audio documentary (the episodes can be found toward the top of this page) about the Johnson County Historic Poor Farm that wove together local histories from the 1800s with current efforts by a local nonprofit, Grow Johnson County, to repurpose the land for hunger relief. Although he was disappointed to have worked entirely from afar—Lack was stationed at his family’s home in Colorado over the summer—he was nonetheless inspired to learn from farmers whose work is far afield from his own training. “I hope the finished series will serve as an inspiration for others to get out and experience all this when the crisis has passed,” Lack says of the site, which is situated just outside of Iowa City. “[Inspiration] to visit the farm, attend the various community education functions Grow Johnson County hosts, and maybe even volunteer, contributing to a very real need and learning lifelong skills right here in our own backyard.”

Each student was required to complete three informational interviews in order to learn more about their field and possible careers. These often opened doors to community leaders and organizations. Miller, for example, spoke with an artist-educator at Grinnell College and also with the former head of the Cedar Rapids School Board, both of whom she intends to stay in touch with. Hayes reached out to local leaders in disabilities services and was able to identify a position at Coe College through one such conversation. She was hired for the job, and her summer internship site has asked her to serve as a consultant.

"What does it mean to be finished?"

Eight weeks is not very long to complete a project, and the fact that many of the interns saw projects through all stages, from creative imagining to adding finishing touches, is impressive. Michael Goldberg, another student in the College of Education's Language, Literacy, and Culture program, had to grapple with the disappointment of not bringing his project to fruition. He partnered with the UI Labor Center’s John McKerley and History Emerita Shelton Stromquist to develop a digital teaching companion to Stromquist’s book Solidarity and Survival. With experience in digital oral history, Goldberg initially thought he had all of the skills needed for the task, but he hadn’t counted on spending weeks in conversation as the three of them tried to figure out and agree on the best format for the project. Should it be narrative-centered or chronological? And when the more technical work began, Goldberg realized that his know-how was stretched more than he’d expected. The project is underway—much to the delight of McKerley, who says that it has been a dream of his for many years—and Goldberg has been able to locate an important lesson in its evolving nature: “Perhaps the biggest struggle,” he wrote at the end of the internship, “is feeling that I am leaving work unfinished. But I think that’s a struggle worth having. It’s worth consideration—what does it mean to be finished?”

These kinds of inchoate lessons were also gained by the two interns at Hancher, Cody Norling (Music) and Emily Weider (French & Italian). Much of the work they’d been meant to do was set aside as the organization responded to a changing funding structure and negotiated the abrupt end of one season and the possible cancellation of another. As Norling said, he and Weider had to adapt to “ever-changing plans” and “shifting timeframes.” The wisdom gained from watching an organization as sizable as Hancher pivot in the midst of a storm inspired Weider to consider her approach to teaching: “In the same way that we [Hancher] prioritized our audience’s needs, I will cater lessons to my students this year.”

At a recent virtual reunion, the interns shared personal successes (one announced a marriage engagement!) and reported on new jobs that were turning out to be good fits. Although the group still had not met in person (though some of the interns knew each other previously through classes and other activities), there was a genuine sense of community. “It was such a pleasure to hear them reconnect,” says New. “Providing a cohort of peers and connecting students to new mentors and resources is one of the most gratifying aspects of this program.” She noted that just this week, she set up a meeting with CAS regarding an Obermann event and was happy to see Edinboro cc’ed on the email; the former intern is continuing her work with the organization but now as a volunteer. And during the interns’ presentation of their work, IVRCD sent one of its staff to attend—someone who had been an intern the summer before and now works there.

Internships and the future of graduate education

There is a growing recognition among departments and universities across the U.S. that graduate students want opportunities to explore careers outside the academy, and that their research and teaching can benefit from this experience. A recent article by Fordham University professor Leonard Cassuto in the Chronicle of Higher Education singled out the University of Iowa’s HPG internship program as an example of a successful and innovative approach to graduate education. Praising the program’s “strong educational focus” and the “forward-looking creativity” of the interns, Cassuto hopes that other graduate programs will look to the HPG internships as a model.

Building on two successful summers, Humanities for the Public Good hopes to expand the program and enable more graduate students to benefit from internship experiences. By cultivating connections between graduate students, humanities departments, and community organizations, the HPG program supports graduate students drawn to a range of possible careers and encourages organizations to draw on their valuable expertise and insight as humanities scholars. In addition to coordinating graduate internships, the Humanities for the Public Good program is also piloting a new cohort of Humanities Labs, cross-disciplinary, problem-solving teams of graduate students, faculty, and staff guided by an interest in the public good. These programs share a belief that humanities scholars can help address current crises and injustices, working collaboratively with on-campus partners as well as community organizations and businesses.

 

To read more about the Humanities for Public Good program, visit the HPG websiteThe website includes a detailed report of what we're learning about internship experiences for humanities students as well as blog posts and videos in which the interns from both 2019 and 2020 reflect on their experiences. Watch the interns give an overview of their work during a recent Zoom presentation.