Virtual internships

Meeting the growing needs of commuter students

We developed a program that was high tech, low touch and rooted in Jewish values

Commuter students, like their counterparts at traditional residential colleges and universities, have suffered the tremendous loss of access to in-person education, social opportunity, and the college experience as a result because of the pandemic. However, in other ways, their experiences are quite unique.

While some of our students come to Hunter College from outside the state, the vast majority are commuter students from the five boroughs of New York City and adjacent communities. These students are the children of immigrants and school teachers, bus drivers and medical office workers – middle class New Yorkers seeking a career that will be meaningful, lucrative, and make their families proud. To achieve this, they travel up to two hours a day in each direction to get to campus, and many work 20 hours a week while taking on rigorous class schedules. 

When commuter students lost their summer internships last year, they also missed out on the learning process that accompanied it. Students typically gain valuable skills in the internship search process, including learning how to draft resumes and research opportunities, interviewing and the value of networking and mentorship – skills that are particularly useful to the first-generation commuter students. These students came to us at Hunter Hillel asking how they could continue to learn these important skills from their apartment, to keep growing their career as internships were canceled. 

We launched our virtual internship for summer 2020 to fill the gap. Our emphasis was not on just expanding our office internship and putting it online. Instead, we distilled the skills and learning experiences from in-person office internships and created a virtual class and networking experience that empowered students to seek and achieve their dream jobs. 

We took our skills in program design, student engagement, and needs assessment and went into curriculum development overdrive. This virtual, self-directed internship was designed to provide students with staff mentorship, professional support, and skills so that their pandemic summer would be a productive one that would help set the stage for what was sure to be a challenging job market when they graduate. 

Students gained free access to online modules about key job skills and two hours of mentorship every week, in addition to a 40-minute weekly workshop. They explored professional interests, learned essential writing and networking skills, and built their resumes, and then reflected with mentors on how to use these skills moving forward in the job market. The weekly workshops gave students an opportunity to share experiences with one another, for staff to synthesize students’ experiences, and for everyone to pivot as a group when needed.

Working with the Rubin Education digital learning platform and our partners at Queens College Hillel and CommonPoint Queens Career Connect, we developed a program that was at once high tech, low touch and rooted in Jewish values. We had no idea how students would respond, who would come, and what the value would be. And as with all of our programming, we create, we spread the word, and see who shows up. 

Not only did students turn out – more than 50 of them – but the program also worked effectively to prepare them for the job market. The summer group was so successful we implemented a cohort for each semester of the 2020-2021 school year. Last semester alone, 25% of participants who completed the internship had full-time jobs or internships at its end. This is the kind of lasting communal impact that is possible when we work together to serve our students’ most pressing needs.

With new exposure and a generous new grant from Charles Binder,  we will be putting our hybrid model to the real test in summer 2021, hosting multiple internship classes per semester, both online and in person. We know that there is more to social mobility and long-term success after graduation than writing skills and interview best practices, so we are also developing a financial literacy component of this internship for students to learn fundamental money management.

The most important lesson we learned from cultivating communal space online during the pandemic is that we can create spaces for our students’ needs when they can’t obtain skills and experience in traditional ways. Through initiatives like our internship program, driven entirely by student need and communication with staff, we have grown our community beyond our physical space to support students as they reach their ultimate goal: success post-graduation.

Merav Fine Braun is the executive director of Hunter Hillel. Jonah Geffen is the campus rabbi of Hunter Hillel.