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Pivoting and learning with internships during COVID-19

August 17, 2020

young woman smiling with computers in backgroundIt was the middle of spring, and Olivia Reneau Pub Pol’22 couldn’t wait to start her internship in Washington, DC. Then COVID-19 changed everything. Reneau decided to postpone her planned summer internship in DC and look for virtual options.

Luckily, Sanford’s Career Services was springing into action and matching students with virtual opportunities. Sanford faculty, staff and students all pitched in to make the quick pivot from in-person to remote internships for summer. Students were flexible and faculty shared their connections. In an amazing rapid response, Career Services staff identified over 100 new remote opportunities and helped individual students find ways to convert in-person experiences to remote.

Reneau ended up with not one, not two, but three virtual experiences this summer. She shared her thanks in an email to the Career Services office:

“I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for all of the help you’ve given this summer. Despite the global disruption, I feel I had a very productive summer. Thanks to your continued availability and logistical support, I successfully held down two internships (and a research opportunity). I was even compensated for my work through financial aid, which allowed me to pay the security deposit on my apartment. All this to say, I am incredibly grateful for all your help in these past few months,” Reneau said.

Reneau’s first opportunity was to provide input into a revamped curriculum for Public Policy 155, working with Professor Nick Carnes and a team of undergraduate and graduate students.

“Pub Pol 155 solidified public policy as a major for me, so I jumped at this opportunity to help.” Over the 10 weeks, Reneau provided curriculum input in specific areas. One of the highlights to her was the close engagement with graduate students.

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    Kyle Melatti PubPol'22 interned in the office of Congresswoman Susie Lee (D-NV) during the summer of 2020. He thought his internship experience might be hindered by going online but it turns out that wasn’t the case.  Often interns only handle mail and phones, but Melatti was able to draft several memos and background briefs, too.

     

    Melatti’s main responsibility was supporting the legislative, communications, and mail teams for Congresswoman Lee. Each morning he would gather information, including major local news, and send a brief to everyone in the office. Once this was done, he answered incoming calls to the D.C. Office. He also handled the Congresswoman’s mail and correspondence. He wrote dozens of responses to constituents. He also wrote memos to the Congresswoman, including legislative briefs and recommendations. 

     

    The highlight of his virtual internship? “I would say meeting the Congresswoman and just having conservations with her virtually over Zoom was fantastic,” Melatti says. “It's not every day that a first-generation American with less than average means gets not only to meet their Congressperson but actually work for them too.”

     

    Melatti has Brazilian roots. His parents moved to the US in the early 1990s in search of a better life. He was born and raised in Las Vegas, where he opened a vegan restaurant with his dad.

     

    Working for Nevada Congresswoman Lee has been a pleasure, he says.

     

    “My boss is so passionate about fighting for the underdog and making sure people aren't getting taken advantage of (especially in areas like education or for veterans), and I respect her and everyone on her staff because of it.”

     

    Kyle Melatti is majoring in Public Policy and Political Science. While at Duke he has been an undergraduate research assistant, and participated in the Kenan Institute for Ethics. He also founded Duke Students for Education Reform.

“I had expected the experience to be more assignments and checkpoints. But we were given a lot of freedom, and each week had a topic. The students worked together through technical research, logic models, and readings for the revamped course. It was empowering to affect policy classes for the future, because this is the first course many students take in the major.”

Reneau also worked with Professor Don Taylor as an undergraduate research assistant on health care policy research in North Carolina. 

“Professor Taylor’s class was the most enjoyable one I have had in public policy. I wanted to gain hands-on research experience, because I want to pursue policy research in the future. So when Professor Taylor asked me if I wanted to help him with research this summer, I said yes. Then COVID-19 happened. The disease is hurting and killing people in North Carolina – especially those who are already facing inequality in health, race and other ways. It was powerful to work with Professor Taylor to document what is happening.”

In addition, she worked for NC Representative Vernetta Alston as a legislative assistant intern, working on memos, speeches and issues including predictive policing, health care and law enforcement.

“With the legislative internship, I wanted to try my hand at a more traditional political career opportunity. I am resolutely set on research, but I wanted to see the legislative side. I loved it. I was able to write and research on topics that were intimately tied to equity, disparity, civil rights and funding,” Reneau said. 

Because Reneau was in Florida, she wasn’t able to meet her supervisor in person.

“I was initially concerned about the lack of physical connection but my internship supervisor was lovely. I was skeptical it was possible to feel close to people – but it was possible. She was very trusting and helpful. It was interesting to work so closely with someone who I never met!”

Reneau said COVID-19 has demonstrated the need for good policy to help people. “As evidenced by the pandemic, bad policy truly hurts people. Policy determines who has a home, who doesn’t, who eats and who doesn’t, who has a job and who doesn’t. I want to help people in my career.”

Andres Taquechel Pub Pol '21 - Urban Institute

YOung man smiling at cameraAndres Taquechel Pub Pol '21 was also excited about a summer in DC and an internship ahead of him at the Urban Institute. But COVID-19 meant he couldn’t travel, so he completed his DC internship from his home in Miami. He worked on an analysis of the African-American history and culture grants given by Congress in 2006 to organizations, as well as other projects.

“Sanford Career Services staff – especially Elise Goldwasser, Suzanne Valdivia and Heather Griswold – recommended for me to apply to Urban. I learned how Urban works in terms of funding, projects and many other aspects of the job. The grants analysis project especially hit home for me about the impact of policy on lives and organizations,” he said.

Taquechel said the experience caused him to reflect about his career interests in teaching, consulting and government.

“Policy affects our life deeply. It plays a role in how you walk around in the country, how you go to school, in every facet of human life in the world. I think it’s important for everyone to understand. The internship showed me the nitty-gritty details of policy, which aren’t always visible. In the grant program analysis, we evaluated grants given by Congress and how museums used the grant. We looked at factors – like cost-share, and how those policies really impact smaller organizations. The internship made me think about public sector consulting more as a career option,” he said.

Emma Foley MPP’21 - National Low Income Housing Coalition

Young woman at standing desk on porch-like spaceEmma Foley MPP’21 described the impacts of her virtual summer internship working as a research intern at the National Low Income Housing Coalition, adding that she will be continuing her internship into the fall semester.

“While I'm sad I didn't get the chance to experience to DC, I am so grateful I got the opportunity to work on some incredibly time-sensitive work related to housing policy amidst COVID-19,” Foley said.

In fact, Foley gained real-life policy experiences as a result of the pandemic. Foley helped coordinate a large data collection and research effort around new emergency rental assistance programs that have been funded to help renters stave off evictions and homelessness. She helped create a database with 320 rental assistance programs, which can be used by tenants to find programs near them and used by researchers and housing advocates to identify programmatic best practices and limitations.

The database was cited in a Washington Post article on the potential wave of evictions that could occur if Congress doesn't pass rental assistance measures in the next federal relief package.

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Myra Parsonnet MPP’21 - Southern Environmental Law Center

Myra Parsonnet MPP’21 said her internship employer did a spectacular job transitioning to a virtual experience. She found the opportunity through the summer Stanback program, shared with her by Donna Dyer of Sanford Career Services. Parsonnet interned at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) in Chapel Hill as a policy fellow, working remotely from her apartment in Durham.

“Although the internship was remote, I was immediately swept up in the fast-paced working environment. I juggled a host of projects ranging from community solar deployment to utility-sponsored demand side management initiatives. I loved the subject matter, but I am most grateful for the structure and social opportunities SELC provided. They set up virtual brown bag lunches, informal coffee chats, weekly intern check-ins, happy hours and even a video tour of the office. These types of virtual events gave structure to the day and reinforced that we were all working through these abnormal times together,” she said.      

Parsonnet said her environmental policy work showed her the connections to other challenges due to COVID-19.

“Climate change is not going to slow down due to the pandemic, but my experience at SELC reaffirmed that we can walk and chew gum at the same time – respond to the pandemic and continue the work. People are working tirelessly on different fronts. Many communities that are facing environmental challenges like pollution are the ones grappling with COVID-19 outbreaks. My internship experience reinforced that environmental policy is not separate from health or social policy – it is all connected,” she said.

The support from the Sanford Career Services office made many of the opportunities possible, students said.

Alex Nichols MPP’21 - NC IDEA

young man sitting on couch with laptopAlex Nichols MPP’21 appreciated the Career Services support and resources throughout the summer. He worked over the summer with NC IDEA, a North Carolina-based foundation supporting entrepreneurs and working to develop the North Carolina entrepreneurial ecosystem from the ground up.

“My experience included both project-based work with NC IDEA’s entrepreneurs, as well as internal projects related to supporting the foundation and the larger North Carolina startup ecosystem. I also had a chance to apply some of my research skills to drafting a white paper on local economic development and entrepreneurial ecosystems."

Along the way, the students talked about the lessons they will never forget from COVID-19, including adaptation, resilience and adjustment.

“The will to suspend the traditional is vital right now,” Reneau said. “We have to approach learning and working differently.”

Shikhar Gupta Pub Pol '21 - Federation of European Academies of Medicine & more

young man standing with Duke arches behind himShikhar Gupta is double-majoring in Neuroscience and Public Policy and is a rising senior. Through the Sanford School and Duke’s network, he completed three internships during the summer of 2020.

One internship focused on gun violence prevention policy in North Carolina, one was tracking local, state, and national policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, and one was coordinating EU science policy objectives for various National Academies of Medicine in Europe.

“I really enjoyed my work from all three internships, as each one highlighted a different aspect of public policy,” Gupta says. “I was given a variety of tasks, including contacting voters, learning about 2020 local election candidates, learning about various levels of legislation and policy, writing memos, creating public communications, drafting policy recommendations, and talking to field experts, among others.”

The best part of his summer whirlwind was being able to gain a clearer vision of his career objectives.

“My interest in a career in public policy began to grow during the last school year through my classes … it was great to distill my interests and get a glimpse of where I want my career to go, while also being able to meet and learn from experts who have had years of experience.”

Gupta says that while he wishes he was able to meet the teams he worked with in person and would have liked to experience “normal office life” there were benefits to doing a virtual internship. He had the opportunity to meet, learn from, and work with experts all over the world. He even plans to continue some of his internship projects part-time through the fall semester.

Joanne Kim Pub Pol '22 - Intel

Joanne Kim with Intel mugJoanne Kim, Pub Pol '22 had the chance to intern at the technology company Intel as a public policy intern. It's an exciting time in tech, and Kim's internship placed her squarely at the fascinating intersection of technology and policy.

Prior to her internship, Kim co-founded and leads the Duke Cyber Policy & Gender Violence Initiative. The goal is to research the cyber implications of gender-violence related issues to better aid survivors during COVID-19 and beyond. She also helps develop campus cyber policy initiatives like Data Privacy Day to increase campus cybersecurity awareness.

Headline about Gov. Cooper, byline by Jeremy Carballo Pineda

Jeremy Carballo Pineda Pub Pol ’22 - IndyWeek & more

Young man with glassesThe excerpt of the hard-hitting news story (above) is from  the North Carolina news source IndyWeek; the story was written by Jeremy Carballo Pineda Pub Pol ’22 and his editor, Leigh Tauss.

Not only did Carballo Pineda serve as a summer reporting intern for the progressive news source, he also completed another internship as a communications/policy intern for Emerging Markets Investors Alliance (EMIA), a nonprofit that provides information to emerging market investors.

“For EMIA, I assisted in the dissemination of roundtable meetings about sovereign debt and the COVID crisis' effects on debt payments,” says Carballo Pineda. The meetings included International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank representatives who hope to aid institutional investors in making more sustainable investments in emerging markets. During his time at EMIA, Carballo Pineda also researched and wrote a report about Brazil’s debt which will be used by institutional investors to negotiate with Brazil's ministers.

The highlight of his time at IndyWeek was writing a personal essay that weaved his experience as an undocumented student with news reporting about DACA and the Department of Homeland Security. Here’s an excerpt:

What do you do when you wake up? 

Every morning, I check the Department of Homeland Security’s website for updates about Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Or at least I used to, until July 28th. On that day, the DHS released a memo that directed the agency to reject all new applications for DACA. In turn, going against the Supreme Court’s ruling and rejecting my bid for life. 

Carballo Pineda says his virtual internships made it a little difficult to network, but he enjoyed the flexibility of working remotely.