Julia Alexander, the Center for Community Engagement’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. She lived and studied in the city and worked as an afterschool volunteer in Kayamandi, a nearby township. “Just seeing the contrast in wealth distribution and the racial segregation was profound for me,” she says. “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 credits this program with transforming the trajectory of her career—and that’s exactly the kind of experience she hopes interns are having now. “I think my role is to challenge students to be critically engaged with the process,” she says. “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.”
Part of this critical engagement means asking students to reflect along the way. As part of the Pioneer Valley Citizen Summer, Alexander facilitates a Friday seminar with the 19 interns, who are living together at Amherst. Interns share their experiences, write reflections and engage with community members through lunches and panels.
Alexander is also zooming in on how interns engage with the idea of social justice—regardless of the internship’s focus. “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. “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 has already facilitated some student-initiated dialogues at Amherst on gender and socioeconomic class. “It’s about being open and listening,” she says. “There’s a demand that students are making to have their identities and experiences heard and valued.”
Alexander looks forward to guiding students through reflections after the summer draws to an end. She plans to ask them: “What changes have happened? Who are you now, who were you before?” Much learning takes place “in the process of reflection after the experience has taken place,” she says. With Alexander at the helm, this year’s interns are in good hands every step of the way.