For many high school students, summer break is typically a time to focus on things that aren’t related to coursework or homework. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to travel the world, others work summer jobs, and still others participate in camps and programs.
Due to the pandemic, though, a lot of these opportunities weren’t available this past summer. The organizers of one specific summer program, however, were determined to run it for a third year, despite a number of challenges.
The PrepareRI Internship Program is a paid summer internship for rising public high school seniors in Rhode Island. Since 2018, the program has provided student interns with skills, connections, and experience in a career path or field they are interested in. PrepareRI stems from Skills for Rhode Island’s Future (SkillsRI), a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing unemployed and underemployed Rhode Islanders with job opportunities.
The PrepareRI organizers knew it would be tough to teach those same skills to interns using a virtual platform, but they were determined to create an experience that would prepare students for future work and career opportunities. To accomplish this, the organizers structured the program similar to how their own company, SkillsRI, is structured.
“Quite honestly, we took a page from our organization and how we moved virtually,” said Nina Pande, the executive director of the PrepareRI program. “We work in different departments. We have teams that work in different departments. We have team leads. We have leadership teams. And so, quite simply, we said: ‘How do we construct a virtual office setting? How do we construct what students would typically learn when they walk into an office building, and how do we do it virtually?’”
This year, the seven-week program, called the COVID-19 Innovation Challenge, ran from July 6 through Aug. 21. Student interns worked remotely from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and were paid $12 an hour.
Of the nearly 500 students who took part in the internship this summer, 16 were from EGHS. There were 12 rising seniors (including me) and 4 rising college freshmen who completed the program last year. The PrepareRI organizers included recent alumni so that they could provide feedback on how closely the virtual model compared to the traditional one.
While a remote internship wasn’t exactly something students signed up for, many of them still enjoyed it and found it to be beneficial for future career aspirations.
“I have learned an unbelievable amount of both hard and soft skills that no other typical high school job could ever teach me,” said Katie Huntley, a senior at EGHS this year. “I have learned so much about workplace culture, teamwork, innovation, entrepreneurship, and even myself.”
Rachel DiStefano, another senior at EGHS, said, “[The internship] provided an opportunity for me to learn invaluable communication and teamwork skills that I am certain will benefit me in my future.”
In order to mirror real-life companies, interns were split into 20 corporations. Each corporation was partnered with a Rhode Island-based organization facing an issue because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The corporation members were tasked with working on a real-life solution to their partner organization’s issue.
Fortunately students were able to see and speak with their teams for the entirety of each work day, thanks to video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams.
“The online internship consisted of a lot of Zoom and [Microsoft] Teams calls, and [that] helped bridge the separation from being at home,” said Sami Gangji, another senior at EGHS. “I actually liked how it was set up, and although being online had a lot of drawbacks . . . communicating was simple and straightforward.”
Some students found the virtual model to be far better than the traditional, since they learned what it’s like to work remotely – which is something many people are doing these days.
“Having an online internship provided a much-needed glimpse into what working at home looks like and feels like,” said Kavana Girish, an EGHS graduate who did the program for a second time this past summer. “I feel better prepared for any virtual work I will do in the future.”
So overall, although the program was quite different from a traditional internship, students enjoyed the remote experience and were satisfied enough to want to do it all over again.
“The PrepareRI virtual internship was an experience that I could not have gotten anywhere else,” said EGHS senior Eric Fang. “The staff and people were super supportive… and we were really given our own time to decide and do our own things. I would definitely want to do it again if it happened next year.”
“[The internship] not only taught me how to better collaborate with peers, [but] it also allowed us to be more independent, better developing problem-solving and thinking skills,” said Girish. “I felt that I was actually earning my wage.”
Aiza Shaikh, a rising senior at EGHS, has been an EG resident since 2008. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys hiking, traveling, and eating coffee ice cream.