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Internship offers on-the-job experience with community impact

By Tom Lotshaw

A paid summer internship program at Western Carolina University pairs students with local nonprofits and community organizations in a partnership that helps each of them succeed and benefits the community at large.

Interning with Circles of Jackson County this summer, Grace Chastain, of Sylva, a senior majoring in English, said she gained work experience in a variety of communications roles. Chastain helped run a blog, rewrite web pages, post to social media and create newsletters, brochures and other materials for the local nonprofit, which works with volunteers to help Jackson County families escape poverty.

“It was a great experience,” Chastain said. “My supervisor put me in a lot of positions where I was actively learning but still able to serve the organization well at the same time. It’s the first time I was able to take all the things I’ve been learning in the classroom and legitimately apply them outside of that.”

Alexa Lockhart

Alexa Lockhart interned with the Center for Domestic Peace in Sylva.

Alexa Lockhart, a senior from Wake Forest majoring in sociology, interned with the Center for Domestic Peace, a nonprofit in Sylva that works to end interpersonal violence through prevention, intervention and public education.

After completing a 20-hour training that allowed her to help with direct client work, Lockhart helped answer a telephone hotline, talk to clients, collect incident data and help connect people with service providers. “I was doing a lot of things,” she said. “It was very hands-on, which I liked.”

Chastain and Lockhart are two of 20 students at WCU who participated in the State Employees’ Credit Union Public Fellows Internship Program this summer.

The SECU Foundation started the program in 2015 as a way to connect talented undergraduate students with local nonprofits and community groups. The goal is to give students on-the-job experience that contributes to local communities and strengthens their nonprofit capacity and reduces talent drain from rural regions in North Carolina.

WCU has participated in the internship program since 2017. The program is now offered in all UNC System universities, and more than 1,000 students have completed internships in 60 North Carolina counties. The SECU Foundation supports the internship program, as well as other scholarship and grant programs, thanks to the collective impact of $1 monthly foundation contributions that SECU account holders elect to make.

WCU receives $100,000 annually from SECU Foundation to offer the 20 summer internships. The funding facilitates paid internships many nonprofits would struggle or be unable to provide on their own.

“We focused our program on students who don’t necessarily have a clear or linear career path — students majoring in the humanities or social sciences who can do lots of different things with their degrees, but don’t know yet what they want to focus on after graduation,” said Theresa Cruz Paul, director of the Center for Career and Professional Development at WCU.

“Another goal is to try to help students see these nonprofits and think about them as career paths, to build communities, but also to stay in North Carolina after they graduate.”

Students who are accepted into the internship program work 30 hours a week for 10 weeks and are paid $5,000. They also participate in bi-weekly meetings as a group with Center for Career and Professional Development staff.

Grace Chastain

Grace Chastain, right, interned with Circles of Jackson County this summer.

Discussion topics in those meetings can range from workplace professionalism and culture to leadership and ethics. WCU staff also help the students identify and develop their strengths.

“That was a really cool piece of the program I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would,” Chastain said. “It asked us to do a lot of reflection on our internship while it was happening, and what we were learning, with other people going through similar experiences.”

Chastain and Lockhart said they recommend the program for any students who are looking for summer internship opportunities. The internship is paid and provides valuable work experience. And it helps students explore potential career opportunities while contributing to a good local cause.

“I knew people in my academic program commonly work in nonprofits, but I didn’t know what that would look like. Getting the professional work experience and seeing what a career path could look like was super helpful, as someone who just didn’t know,” Chastain said.

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