Students engage in remote internship experiences during COVID-19 pandemic

four split screen with four women and the Kahoots graphic

During an interactive presentation in June, Perdeta Bush and interns Laura Soriano, and Kariann Sweeney (clockwise) discuss activities they designed for the Penn State Harrisburg Reads program.

Credit: Nathan Ousey, Sharon Siegfried

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — For many students, finding an internship during the coronavirus pandemic has been difficult. Thankfully for some Penn State Harrisburg students in the School of Behavioral Science and Education, several faculty and staff members came together before the summer began to help ensure students met their internship requirements, and provided them unique experiences that enriched their learning. 

Maria Turkson, associate professor of psychology, encouraged her students to contact their internship sites where they were already hired and ask if remote work was possible. “I was concerned that students would not be able to follow-through with working at their sites,” she said. “Students indicated that most of their sites were not getting back to them or didn’t know if they could implement their internships remotely.”

While some students did find remote opportunities, others were left without a way to fulfill their credits. Turkson contacted several offices at the college about the possibility of providing internship experiences. Several staff members agreed to help, including Perdeta Bush, equity and compliance specialist in the Division of Student Affairs.

Based on each student’s interests and professional goals and after conducting interviews via Zoom, Bush placed each intern in one of two projects: one relating to college Title IX regulations and another with Penn State Harrisburg Reads.

Both internship programs began on May 27 and continued until June 26. The groups met through Zoom each week to discuss progress and assignments.

One group of interns helped Bush assess impacts of the new regulations changes to Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based solely on one’s sex, which were implemented by the U.S. Department of Education in May.

Interns in the Title IX group researched the new regulations, identifying comparisons and contrasts to the previous for handling sexual assault and other instances of discrimination. Bush noted how the interns were “putting pieces together and realizing how [Title IX] applies to the world around them,” adding that she is hopeful they will take what they learn from the internship and implement it into their practice.

The interns also added a unique aspect to the college's “Consent Matters” student education campaign, introducing a component on trauma. “Trauma will manifest itself in different ways at different times,” Bush explained. “Often times, survivors of sexual assault will exhibit different behaviors or post experiences from it, all relating to trauma… Their communities are not equipped to help them because of how their trauma would manifest.” The interns researched this focus and incorporated information about trauma in their campaign materials.

The other group of interns worked on the Penn State Harrisburg Reads program, which provides “a shared experience among students who read the same book while also creating a campaign that fosters dialogue and engagement about the concepts introduced in the book for the campus at large,” according to Bush.

This summer, the interns read the fiction novel “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng. It follows the life of an Asian-American family, dealing with topics of racial identity, culture, community, grief and family dynamics. The students researched the book’s themes to build an educational campaign promoting its messages. This novel was selected for the coming year of Penn State Harrisburg Reads, and the interns’ material will be incorporated into its fall programming.

Intern Kariann Sweeney discussed her personal growth during the summer experience. “This experience has taught me a lot about myself,” she said. “The book we are reading and themes we are researching have taught me a lot as well.” She noted how the remote nature of the experience provided a challenge, but it was one she overcame with the help of her peers, as well as Bush and Turkson. 

“This has shown me that life doesn’t always go quite as planned, but if you’re willing to put in the effort to adapt or change due to different circumstances, there will be people alongside you who will gladly help," said Sweeney.

On June 26, the interns gave interactive presentations to showcase the activities they designed for their campaign material. These are proposed events for the Title IX and Penn State Harrisburg Reads programs to potentially use as components of their programming in the fall. The “hybrid activities” allow for future participation in-person and digitally, enabling as many students as possible to participate simultaneously and can be used by the college in the future.

The Title IX group designed hybrid activities to deliver information on consent and trauma. These included “watch parties” where participants can view movies/videos related to consent and discuss them, as well as a Kahoot game that teaches trauma statistics. Intern Madison Barcavage concluded her group’s presentation by stressing the importance of making this information accessible to students at college campuses. “If [students] are not aware, they cannot protect themselves or others. Knowledge is power; that’s what we wanted to hit home,” she said.

The Penn State Harrisburg Reads group created hybrid events to educate students and others about the book’s themes of discrimination and grief. These included a forum-style event where students can publicly or anonymously share their experiences of racial discrimination, as well as a discussion-focused event where participants discuss grief and write their grieving thoughts on balloons to symbolically release. The group also proposes to reach out to the book's author, Celeste Ng, about the possibility of her speaking on campus about these themes. Intern Joy Bratcher noted how the novel “touches upon lessons relating to the hectic society we are in now, so I believe this book would be a great addition to the Penn State Harrisburg Reads program.”

Other students in the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education got the opportunity to complete a remote internship opportunity with The Office of Student Life & Intercultural Program. Five interns assisted Donna Howard, associate director of the Office of Student Life, with building a student leadership series to be offered to Penn State Harrisburg students. Just like Bush’s interns, they worked on assignments and met each week to present their progress.

Howard talked about how the experience allowed for collaborative and insightful work. “The interns researched student leadership development, learned how to write learning objectives, and created a framework for a 6-week series that can be facilitated either in-person or virtually.”

Despite the remote nature of these internships, the students were able to easily connect with one another and engage on projects together. Howard’s interns operated as either a pair or a trio; she said they seemed to enjoy the team-based approach.

Turkson said she admires the work done by interns from the School of Behavioral Sciences and Education, and remarked on how all of her students transitioned from working with face-to-face sites to remote experiences.

“They handled the stress very well and have done exceptional work from the Title IX office working on the new guidelines, to working on case studies in education, to developing leadership resources, to working remotely at call centers and counseling centers,” she said. “The students have done a tremendous amount of work applying internship research.”