Internship Postcards: Theophilus Agbi '15
August 2012—story by Jenny Morgan, photo by Rob Mattson/Amherst College, Office of Public Affairs
Theophilus (Theo) Agbi ’15 didn’t start out looking for an internship in local government, but he’s pretty glad he found one.
The rising sophomore from Brooklyn, New York had initially wanted to spend his summer focusing on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, citing marriage equality, bullying, and workplace discrimination as the issues closest to his heart. When his search failed to turn up such an internship, Agbi had a bit of a revelation. "The more I started looking up LGBT rights and learning about the policy behind [them], I started to realize that the thing that interests me is government— politics and how it all works."
Enter recently elected Alex Morse, who made history in 2011 as Holyoke's youngest mayor. Many view Morse’s election in Holyoke as an invigorating change in Holyoke’s political landscape, and Agbi is no exception. "I kept hearing about this new spirit in Holyoke. With the election of Alex Morse, there's this new, vibrant energy." This summer, Agbi was offered an internship with Mayor Morse’s office as part of Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer, a residential internship program offering students housing and funding for internships in the Pioneer Valley. Agbi’s internship was the first of its kind: never before had an Amherst student interned for the mayor of Holyoke. If Agbi has anything to do with it, it won’t be the last, either.
For Agbi, working in government was a perfect fit. His passion for solving public problems is unmistakable. No task was too small for the intern, who explains that a lot of his job “was taking notes, listening, keeping track of things, and going to events.” Not surprisingly, Agbi found that answering phones allowed him to plug into Holyoke in a meaningful way. "Constituents would call upset and explain their issues,” he says, adding that his impulse was always to offer support. “I had this really strong desire to help them and help solve their problems." He learned that working in local government often meant that these problems could be addressed quickly. "People would just call in [saying], ‘I need this.’ They [had] an actual problem, and I knew where to look to find the solution. It was crazy how immediately people [in the office] were willing to respond."
Agbi wasn’t just glued to a desk, either. He got to help coordinate a couple of major events during his time with Mayor Morse’s office, including the city’s first ever LGBT pride flag-raising ceremony in mid-June. In July, he assisted in organizing Holyoke’s CreativeNEXT meeting, bringing together the city’s business and creative sectors for a discussion on building a creative economy. Agbi’s internship with Mayor Morse was his first experience working in an office environment— and he admits that there was a bit of a learning curve. “My supervisor once told me, ‘Your emails are too formal. They need to be casual formal.’ I didn’t know what that was— I always thought casual was like, ‘Hey, what's up?’ and formal was ‘Greetings. Hello.’ It was this whole other language I had to learn. I'm more prepared now. As an intern, they didn't really hold things against me. They were really supportive.”
As part of the Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer program, Agbi participated in weekly courses and local field trips with his fellow interns— and it was in these Wednesday sessions that he found another passion: education. “I started listening to the stories of educators and coordinators,” he says. “I found out that the educational system in Holyoke is one of the lowest in Massachusetts. I've always taken education for granted. It was never an option for me not to go to college.”
Agbi initiated a series of conversations with community organizers in an attempt to understand more. “How exactly do we start changing the education system in Holyoke? What are people doing to make the school environment friendlier so students want to stay there? A lot of what I found is that it’s a compilation of issues.” According to Agbi, one of the clearest roadblocks for improving education in Holyoke is politics. He points to the delayed opening of the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School in Holyoke as a clear example of “politics taking over.” The school, poised to open its doors this fall, was forced to delay their opening by a year after a last minute decision by the Holyoke city council not to lease it a building. Agbi was dismayed. “When you give this kind of hope to people, it's so hard when you have to take it back.”
What made Agbi’s internship experience unique was that he could take his questions— and concerns— back to the office. “I got the chance to go back to the Mayor's office and speak to people who have been there for years and find out what's going on. I got two different perspectives on the issues,” he says. Now that he’s had a taste of working in government, Agbi, who plans to double major in French and law, jurisprudence and social thought, is ready for more. This fall, he’ll join Amherst’s public policy think tank, the Roosevelt Institute, and he’ll continue visiting Holyoke. Next summer, Agbi plans to either return to Mayor Morse’s office or take a government internship in Washington, D.C. It’s clear that Agbi hopes to effect meaningful social change by working both behind the scenes and directly with people. “I'm just so fascinated by how government works and what goes on for every citizen. Once you figure out how things work on the inside, then you can start making things work on the outside. It's pretty cool to see it in action. I realize how much I care.”
This summer, 182 students interned in 13 countries, 12 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico through the Center for Community Engagement’s summer internship programs.Today's postcard is from Theophilus Agbi '15. Agbi is from Brooklyn, New York, and interned in the office of Mayor Alex Morse in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Jenny Morgan is a staff writer for the Center for Community Engagement. She welcomes comments or questions at jmorgan[at]amherst[dot]edu.