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Amherst College paid interns help nonprofits

By Stephen Singer
Associated Press / July 22, 2012
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AMHERST, Mass.—With tutoring experience already under her belt, Tian Buzbee is now getting some practice in the administrative side of education before graduating college prepared for a career teaching math.

The Amherst College student, who will graduate next year, previously tutored math at Holyoke High School and currently is being paid $2,000 as a summer intern in the superintendent's office of the Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools, where she said she's learning about school administration.

The work has also been a financial boost.

"I think it definitely makes a difference because I know I needed a job making money," Buzbee said.

The 21-year-old is among nearly 200 students working at public sector and nonprofit organizations that are getting a boost from an influx of idealistic young workers who benefit from an unconventional arrangement financed by the prestigious western Massachusetts college. For Buzbee, her eight-week internship involves helping organize a school supply drive for low-income children and working on a project that lists community and school programs, activities and services available to students.

The Amherst internship program, which annually spends about $500,000 endowed by alumni, is unusual. A little more than half of college student interns in 2011 were paid, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. But money for paid internships typically comes from employers, not colleges, spokeswoman Mimi Collins said.

At a time when college students face massive debt tied to school loans and the worst job market in decades, the Amherst internships provide experience that could help in a job search and pay up to $3,500, depending on whether students live at home or travel abroad.

The internships are not based on financial need.

"We did it because kids typically need to work in the summer and they need money," said Molly Mead, director of Amherst's Center of Community Engagement, which administers the internship program. "It means any student interested in having a public service opportunity can afford to do so."

About 300 Amherst students vie for the 200 internships. Those who are accepted have proven the experience will advance their education, Mead said. The college recognizes that 19- and 20-year-olds may not know precisely what they want to do and will look for relevant background and preparation, she said.

"What we don't like to do is fund students who say, `I'd like to go to Africa this summer. I've never been to Africa,'" Mead said.

Other Amherst interns are working on efforts to establish literacy programs around the world, researching nonprofits that are the most effective, and joining community development projects in India and other areas.

John Abele, a 1959 alumnus of Amherst and founding chairman of medical device maker Boston Scientific Corp., is a major donor to the internship program. He said its goal is to "round out" students' experiences in the real world.

"What we're trying as a society to do is make education available to those who can't afford it," he said. "A stipend is a relatively low-cost way to give these people an experience they wouldn't get otherwise. It's impossible to do without a little bit of help."

Ford Myers, a Pennsylvania career coach and writer, said paid internships are declining as employers seek free workers.

"Why do they get away with this? Because they can," he said.

Beth Settje, senior assistant director and manager of internship resources at the University of Connecticut, said many employers believe college students may only receive course credit for internships, not pay. Many also don't understand that only colleges may award academic credit for internships and judge if the work merits college credit.

"A lot of employers don't get it," Settje said.

Kimberly Stender, the volunteer coordinator for Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools, said she also benefits from the work done by Buzbee, the first intern in the superintendent's office.

"I would do a lot of it myself, things that I take for granted," she said.

The internships are varied.

Maria Darrow, whose only previous agricultural experience was at a flower stand, is working on a community farm not far from downtown Amherst.

"I was mentally prepared for it to be harder than everybody else's internship," she said. "Everyone has a desk job."

Instead, she's planting and tending to squash, melons, cucumbers and other fruits and vegetables, all while earning a $2,000 stipend that is helping her parents pay for school, she said.

Many Amherst internships are overseas.

Economics student J.J. Hoffstein is designing a course on entrepreneurship that he'll teach to sixth-grade students in Johannesburg, South Africa, for a month this summer.

Hoffstein said he is getting a $3,500 stipend to design the internship, teach the course and establish a model based on his project.

For Buzbee, her internship helps her see how administrators and teachers, working together, operate a school district.

"It helps me understand the potential for a good connection between a superintendent and teachers, a web of support so you're not alone in your classroom," she said.

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