Best Practices on Creating a Successful Internship Program

Volume 26, No. 2 - Winter 2014
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In collaborations between TCUs and non-profits, conversations on the importance of cultural understanding and community-based work are vital. Pictured above, Dwayne Joe, a student at IAIA, confers with Youth Media Media Project

To deliver real-world experience and encourage job readiness in their students, some tribal colleges and universities (TCUs) are looking offcampus. Their strategy is this: create collaborative internship programs with nearby non-profit organizations that will help students respond to regional economic needs and give them valuable hands-on experience they can use anywhere. And while the idea of intern partnerships is not new, meaningful best practices are consistently being refined. Specifically, TCUs that partner with non-Native organizations may benefit from advance planning and careful, consistent communication.

In 2014, the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) partnered with Youth Media Project, an organization that offers college students professional development opportunities in digital storytelling and media production. Some of what we learned after the first semester of joint programming between IAIA and Youth Media Project may help others who are planning their own internship collaboration.

When embarking on collaborative programming, first determine the most meaningful ways to proceed. Will it be a collaborative process with the students leading the way in designing their internship experience, or will the most effective process be one that is determined solely by the hosting non-profit and the TCU? Perhaps there is the capacity to blend both strategies together. For example, the IAIA-Youth Media Project student interns determined the content of the radio programs they produced. The internship required that all interns meet regularly in order to par ticipate in programming and successfully receive full credit. IAIA had predetermined contact-hour limits for the semester, and both the non-profit and IAIA students signed a written agreement which outlined the basic parameters for the internship.

In the IAIA-Youth Media Project collaboration, one issue that arose was internship attendance. TCUs may have different criteria for excused absences than their non-profit partners. Considering that tribal colleges were founded to preserve traditional knowledge, culture, and language, how might TCU faculty and administrators best communicate to non-profits the role and importance of attendance at ceremonies? One possible solution may be to address this need at the beginning of the internship term, as a mandatory condition for any TCU—non-profit collaboration.

Additionally, TCUs that can clearly articulate protocols regarding excused absences in a written policy, and non-profits who plan for these absences in advance and provide opportunities to TCU students to make up missed internship time, have a greater chance for mutual success. Considering internship credit must adhere to a set number of hours, clarity and foresight around this particular point is beneficial to the tribal college as well as the non-profit organization. Moreover, non-profit staff who are responsible for managing interns, must understand these excused absences do not reflect poorly on job performance, and should not be a detriment in the organization’s capacity to hire TCU interns or write letters of recommendation that will further support the students.

Consider also who is best equipped to manage the interns’ work: is it the TCU, the non-profit, or both? Ideally, there will be one point-person in the non-profit organization who actively mentors and guides the intern. This staff member will be responsible for evaluating the intern’s performance midway through the internship and providing valuable feedback on ways the student may enhance the skills and talents in which they excel. The staffer can also provide support in areas where the intern may need to improve. Such a strategy must ensure that cultural considerations are made relating to excused absences.

Goals may vary from intern to intern, but TCUs and non-profits that are creating or continuing internship programs should discuss the importance of community-based work that supports students who intend on returning home to work locally. The partners should consider collaborative internship experiences that enhance the existing workforce readiness of TCU students, yet provide opportunities to non-profit organizations that are interested in cultivating ongoing relationships with their interns. When internship collaborations offer a strong, consistent value to non-profits and TCUs, there is less concern about the program’s time investment. Put simply, meaningful internship programs should create a shared vision of mutual success.

When Youth Media Project staff met after our first semester collaboration with IAIA, we discussed the potential challenges and rewards of repeating the internship. We recognized that student interns were taking the skills they learned back to their respective reservations, pueblos, and tribal communities. This level of consistent commitment is what anchors our future work and will make it valuable for everyone involved. The investment that Youth Media Project made in teaching and cultivating the art of digital storytelling will have a positive impact beyond students’ individual careers and lives. We recognize that collaborations work best when there is shared vision and commitment. Beneficial impacts are likely to spread to entire communities above and beyond what Youth Media Project or IAIA could reach through our respective individual communities, programs, and resources.

In the end, for an internship partnership to be positive and successful, TCUs and their non-profit partners will need to have multiple conversations on the importance of cultural understanding and ways to meaningfully accommodate Native students. These conversations should happen well before the first interns begin, so that all parties can understand one another’s expectations and create systems that improve student success. Additionally, non-profit administrators will have to be willing to engage in an ongoing learning process on how to best support TCU interns.

At the same time, TCUs will have to commit to continuously engage with the non-profit organization so that any issues in the internship may be addressed early on, avoiding potentially stressful situations with non-profit staff or student interns. This will require an increased time commitment from all parties. However, such a proactive approach will help ensure success and minimalize negative outcomes when hourly commitments are assessed and reported.

TCUs considering internship partnerships with nonprofits should connect with other TCUs and non-profits that are already successfully engaged in an ongoing internship collaboration. Reaching out to these institutions and organizations for advice can improve the design and implementation of the internship process. The more that is known about best practices, the easier it may be to avoid mistakes.

Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz serves as the interim executive director of Youth Media Project in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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