UArizona to expand internship support for students

two people shaking hands

Internships are a valuable part of the college experience that can go a long way in helping students land a job after graduation.

The University of Arizona, with a new $250,000 grant, is expanding programs that help students – especially students of color, first-generation college students and students with financial need – prepare for and succeed in internships.

The funding comes from the Beyond Completion Challenge, which aims to improve career opportunities for students of color, first-generation college students, students who struggle to pay for education, and adult students and workers.

The challenge is offered through the Strada Education Network, a nonprofit organization whose mission includes increasing access to education after high school, in partnership with the Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity, a collective of 37 higher education institutions and partner organizations, including UArizona, focused on improving higher education's contributions to society, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Task force member organizations were invited to propose projects to improve outcomes for students after graduation.

Abra McAndrew, assistant vice president of access, engagement and opportunity in UArizona Student Engagement and Career Development and principal investigator for the grant, said her team chose to focus on internships after seeing the results of a survey of students graduating in spring 2020 – at the dawn of the pandemic. The survey found that first-generation students who had internship experience were more than three times likelier to get a job right out of college than their peers who did not complete internships.

"That's something we could anticipate," McAndrew said, adding that employers also have long indicated in surveys that they prefer entry-level job candidates who have internship experience.

"Now, we have the data and the nuanced analysis that shows it," she said. "We've been piloting some strategies for a while, and this funding gives us a chance to double down on scaling those programs."

The funding will allow the university to expand three of its internship-related programs to support at least 1,400 more students, McAndrew said. In addition to the $250,000 grant, the university will provide $178,000 to further support the expansion of the programs.

a group of students

A team of Design Projects students brainstorming ideas as part of a project for KXCI, a community radio station in Tucson.

Eli Burke

One program that will benefit from the new funding is the Design Projects program run by Student Engagement and Career Development. The program pairs teams of students with clients – typically local nonprofit organizations – facing big-picture challenges. Students, who come from different majors and volunteer for the program outside of their classes, use an established process to think about all stakeholders involved, and brainstorm potential solutions before settling on one to pitch to the client.

For example, a team of students recently helped El Rio Health, a local nonprofit that helps people access quality health care, increase the reach of its Reproductive Health Access Program, said Eli Burke, a program manager in Student Engagement and Career Development who oversees and guides students in the Design Projects program.

The Design Projects program currently has the capacity for 10 students. The new funding will allow the program to become a paid, semester-long internship that can accommodate up to 150 students. Some of the more experienced students will lead projects alongside Student Engagement and Career Development staff.

The new funding makes the program much more equitable for students who can't afford to take on unpaid commitments, Burke said.

The program, he added, helps students see their strengths and weaknesses in a new light.

"It's really important to us that students know and understand their own positionality and implicit bias, where they come from and what their limits are," Burke said. "Sometimes, the project makes them question what they're good at, what they like to do, and how that folds into a career."

Other program additions

Also as a result of the funding, the university will, for the first time, provide 1,250 students access to Career Core, an online training course that teaches students how to find internships and translate internship and academic experiences into skills that they can market in job interviews. The course, provided by the educational services company Kaplan, will supplement the university's existing Career Peer Coaches program, which partners students with fellow student coaches to help them prepare for job searches.

The university will also be able to offer more scholarships through the Summer Internship Stipends program, which provides financial support to students who take unpaid or underpaid internships. Although internships are crucial for gaining job experience, those that are unpaid or underpaid are often not feasible for first-generation students or students from low-income families, who may have to choose between an internship or a full-time summer job that provides greater income.

The program will be able to serve 50 students with the new funding.

UArizona was one of 15 institutions to receive a portion of the $10 million in total funding awarded in the Beyond Completion Challenge's first phase. Opportunities to earn more funding will come in subsequent phases of the challenge.

"We're really trying to help students recognize how important internships are," McAndrew added, "and to have some money to put behind that to make sure that we're increasing the number of those experiences and access to those experiences."