FAHSS Students Get Professional Experience – and Inspiration

Bora Chhun '16 works part-time for Lowell's Solid Waste & Recycling Office Image by Tory Germann
Bora Chhun '16 got a job at Lowell's Solid Waste & Recycling Office through a service-learning internship.

By Katharine Webster

As graduation loomed, Bora Chhun ’16 realized he needed real-world experience if he was going to achieve his goal of becoming a professional writer.

Chhun, a philosophy major with a communications concentration and a minor in English, asked Assoc. Prof. of English Diana Archibald for help finding a service-learning internship. She got him one with the City of Lowell Solid Waste & Recycling Department.

When his internship supervisor realized Chhun was taking a class in grant-writing, he asked him to help write a grant to overhaul recycling in the city schools. He was so pleased with Chhun’s work that two months into the internship, he offered Chhun a part-time job.

Now Chhun educates residents of the Acre and Centralville neighborhoods in three languages – English, Khmer and Spanish – about what they can and can’t put into their recycling bins. He also manages some grants and interagency partnerships, including the one that funds his 20-hours-a-week position.

“I didn’t have to do a practicum, but I wanted one,” Chhun says. “Work is great – and there’s a possibility I’ll move to a full-time position.”

Bora Chhun checks a recycling bin for contamination. Image by Tory Germann
Bora Chhun '16 checks a recycling bin for contamination.

Some South Campus majors find paid internships through the annual Liberal Arts and Health Career Fair or through CareerLINK, the jobs and internships database maintained by the Career & Co-op Center, says Dana Norton, associate director of career services. But others find it challenging to get paying internships that align with their career goals.

That’s where service-learning internships with government agencies and nonprofits come in. Some, like Chhun’s, lead to paying jobs in the same organization. Even when they don’t, they pay big dividends in professional networking, job recommendations and real-world experience – while earning students college credit, says Vanessa Farzner, service-learning coordinator for the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

“The experience of having the internship boosts your chances of getting a job right after graduation,” Farzner says, citing research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers and other organizations.

Service learning also pays off in less tangible, but equally important ways, according to the university’s own research. Students say it helps them clarify their values, become more informed citizens and understand people from different backgrounds.

Norton says internships also teach students the two skills that employers value most: leadership and teamwork.

Building Skills and Relationships

Nina Petropoulos, a senior, got a chance to build those skills in a service-learning internship at C.L.A.S.S. Inc., a nonprofit serving young adults with disabilities. An English major who taught herself web development, she was soon asked to redesign the organization’s website. She taught herself Google Analytics, because C.L.A.S.S. wanted the measurement tool incorporated into the website upgrade. The nonprofit is now paying her to complete the job – and she’s picked up other freelance clients.

“I get to work with people who value somebody taking initiative, taking opportunities to learn more, do more and be of service,” Petropoulos says.

FAHSS service-learning internships take different forms. Most are unpaid and require the student to find a faculty sponsor for the academic component of the work, such as a reflective essay or final project. Some students get internships through Farzner’s office, while others get them through faculty members who are plugged into the community.

Farzner’s office also offers about a dozen, non-credit community internships each semester in which students earn $1,000 to work 10 hours a week for 10 weeks, with the nonprofit and the FAHSS dean’s office sharing the cost.

Co-op scholar Aaron King, an English major and digital media minor, did his co-op the summer after his freshman year at Lowell Telecommunications Corp., the city’s public access cable station. He followed up by applying for – and getting – a pair of cost-sharing internships at LTC his sophomore year, a paying summer job and two more cost-sharing stints his junior year. That experience – producing entire shows from setting up lights to directing, filming and editing – helped him get a job this summer making videos for a custom builder’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

“The very first internship was the gateway. Not only did it convince me this is what I want to do in life – producing and editing – but it connected me with the digital media program, which was just getting up and running,” King says.

In addition to individual service-learning internships, the English and Sociology departments offer service-learning classes that provide an immersion experience very similar to an internship. Some faculty match the students one-on-one with a community agency, while others send students in teams to work on a project.

In a recent community service seminar taught by Lecturer Susan Thomson Tripathy, sociology students helped Lowell High School students from low-income families apply to college. Some students discovered a passion – while others realized their “dream job” as a high school guidance counselor was a poor fit. That’s an equally valuable lesson, Tripathy says.

“Without that experience, students don’t find that out until later, when they’ve graduated. To discover that in college is really helpful because it can end up pointing you in the right direction,” she says.