Center for Community Engagement

The alchemy of a successful internship

July 2013—Julia
Alexander, the CCE's public service internship coordinator, is bringing reflection and social justice to the heart of the CCE's internship programs. Story by Jenny Morgan, photo by Eugene Lee '16.

As 127 students are immersed in internships across 15 states and 13 countries, public service internship coordinator Julia Alexander is eagerly waiting to learn how these internships might shape their future work or lead to unexpected discoveries. This summer—her first in the position—Alexander is coordinating two internship programs: the Civic Engagement Scholars and Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer.

Alexander knows firsthand that internships can lead to unexpected discoveries.

In the summer of 2007, Alexander traveled to Stellenbosch, South Africa as part of an undergraduate service-learning program. Alexander lived and studied in the city, and then worked as an after-school volunteer in Kayamandi, a nearby township. She remembers the visibility of inequality thirteen years after the end of apartheid. “Just seeing the contrast in wealth distribution and the racial segregation was profound for me,” she says. Alexander was surprised at how often she found herself thinking of race in the United States, too. “As a young white woman having grown up with a lot of privilege, I often questioned inequality in America. In South Africa, I was able to see this weirdly parallel racial history. It took me stepping outside of my community to fully understand it. When I returned, I had this whole other lens with which to view race, society, and myself.” Alexander attributes this summer program with transforming the trajectory of her career—and that’s exactly the kind of experience she hopes interns will have this year.

How does a public service internship coordinator hope to encourage this kind of internship alchemy? Many of the best discoveries seem, on the surface, a happy coincidence of circumstances. While that may be true, for Alexander, being in the right place at the right time involves a great deal of intention. “I think my role is to challenge students to be critically engaged with the process,” she explains. “I don’t want students to just go and do something. I want them to think about how it relates to their academics, their passions, or their professions—how they can create something really sustainable.”

Part of this critical engagement means asking students to reflect along the way. In the locally-based Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer, Alexander facilitates a Friday seminar with the program's 19 interns, who are also living together on Amherst's campus. For four days a week, they go to their internships, and on Fridays, they work with Alexander and Maria Cartagena, the Five College community partnership coordinator for community-based learning, to process their experiences. "I've been most excited to develop [this] curriculum," she says. "Community engagement is about intentionally connecting with people." Alexander points to the Friday seminars as a way to "do this better." Interns are asked to share their experiences, write weekly reflections, and engage with community members through lunches and panels. In the coming years, she hopes to develop curriculum for students in Civic Engagement Scholars as well.

Alexander, who recently completed a Master’s of Education in Social Justice at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, is also making a concerted effort to zoom in on how interns can engage with the idea of social justice—no matter what the internship’s focus is. “Social justice asks us to be reflective of who we are and where we are and how our position in society affects our relationships,” she says, adding that it’s especially important in situations where students are navigating unfamiliar communities. “When you are talking about a program that is asking students to engage with people they might not necessarily have contact with before, [understanding] social justice is the key to a successful internship.” As a trained facilitator in intergroup dialogue, Alexander is well versed in encouraging students to talk 'through' difference—she's already facilitated a handful of student-initiated dialogues at Amherst on gender and socioeconomic class. "The core of dialogue is about understanding and respecting another person," she explains. "It's about being open and listening. There's a demand that students are making to have their identities and experiences heard and valued."

Alexander is especially looking forward to guiding students through reflections after the summer draws to an end—and she's already got questions prepared. "What changes have happened? Who are you now, who were you before?" Much of our learning takes place, Alexander explains, "in the process of reflection after the experience has taken place." With Alexander at the helm, this year's interns are in decidedly good hands every step of the way.