Chicago Public Schools students gain valuable career experience through campus internships

Youth Internship Program intern Dejiah Beatty and Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Assistant Dean of Education and Outreach Laura Rico-Beck

Before Dejiah Beatty started her summer internship at the University of Chicago, she shared with the selection committee her aspirations of one day becoming a neonatal surgeon. Beatty, a rising junior at Kenwood Academy high school who lives in Chicago’s Fernwood neighborhood, was placed in the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) accordingly. For six weeks, she had an opportunity to dive into scientific work she’s passionate about, connect with PME scientists, and even gather data from interviews with her own friends and family to inform future PME science communications and outreach efforts.

“It’s been a great resource that’s opened up to me,” Beatty says. 

Beatty is one of 10 local high school students participating in the Office of Civic Engagement’s (OCE) Youth Internship Program micropilot this summer and one of dozens of South Side high school students working as paid interns through programs across UChicago’s campus. 

Laura Rico-Beck, PME assistant dean of education and outreach and Beatty’s internship supervisor, says the internship has been an opportunity for Beatty to contribute to PME’s programmatic development and even help shape science education in her own community. As a participant in PME’s Teach Quantum program, for instance, Beatty was among a group of student evaluators who were asked to offer feedback to local high school teachers who have been working with PME faculty to develop curricula around the emerging quantum sciences.

“[Dejiah’s] directly informing how her physics teacher is going to plan and teach their level at their school, so that, to me, was tremendously important because she’s an integral part of the process of developing learning units for her own school,” Rico-Beck says. “We are part of the South Side community and being part of that community is really interacting actively, not just providing knowledge but learning from the neighborhood as well, and I can say without a doubt that PME had benefitted tremendously from having Dejiah with us this summer.”

The Youth Internship Program originally stemmed from recommendations from the Community Development Working Group — a group of more than 60 local stakeholders OCE has convened since 2019 to explore how the University can help to spur more equitable development and economic inclusion on the South Side.Developed in partnership with a working group including representatives from the Office of the President, Human Resources, and Career Advancement, the program aims to provide students like Beatty with meaningful work experience, career exploration opportunities, mentorship, and college readiness and access support. Students representing four local high schools have worked with a variety of University units including OCE, the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Economic Inclusion Lab, and Commercial Real Estate Operations, and each intern was paired with an internship supervisor as well as a mentor. The program is set to expand to at least 30 students next summer, with plans to ultimately host 100 CPS high schoolers per summer.

Opportunities Across Campus

Though summer interns were primarily hosted virtually this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, youth were still able to gain valuable work experience. Interns took part in programs such as the immersive 10-week Data & Computing Summer Lab led by the Center for Data and Computing and created community-based design projects that responded to local needs as part of Arts + Public Life’s Design Apprenticeship Program, led in partnership with After School Matters. 

At the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, 22 high school interns, primarily from South Side communities, took part in a seven-week action civics program this summer developed by the Chicago Center for Youth Violence Prevention (CCYVP) in partnership with nonprofit Bright Star Community Outreach and the City of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago program. Participants researched social issues, created community profiles, met with community stakeholders on social change projects, and helped assess an educational unit in development about the 1919 Chicago Race Riots.

CCYVP Executive Director Franklin Cosey-Gay says leading the program is especially meaningful for him as someone who grew up ten blocks south of UChicago’s campus and didn’t always see the University as being accessible to local young people.

“What I really love about this is not only is the University accessible, but we’re having the opportunity to really talk about why our communities look the way that they do,” Cosey-Gay said. “And not just leaving it in the past but exploring why that matters today and what [the interns] can do about it and partnering them with community-based organizations to help support something that they’re passionate about.” Terrell Odom, director of the Office for Military-Affiliated Communities, and Youth Internship Program intern Joshua PolkDirector of the Office for Military-Affiliated Communities Terrell Odom and Youth Internship Program intern Joshua Polk

College Readiness and Career Development

In addition to the practical experience campus internships offer, many programs include college readiness, career development, and networking elements as well. For Beatty and other students participating in the Youth Internship Program, that means dedicating each Tuesday to professional development activities, speakers, and exercises. 

Joshua Polk, a rising junior at Martin Luther King, Jr. College Prep High School who lives in Bronzeville and has been interning in the University’s Office for Military-Affiliated Communities as part of the program, says the group activities have helped him hone the business skills he hopes to one day put to use working as an entrepreneur or in the retail industry. “I work alone a lot so the group work is helping me learn how to work with other people and helping me communicate,” Polk says. During his internship, Polk has sat in on calls with state and federal agencies, researched and written about veterans’ benefits programs, gathered program data, and helped compile the office’s annual impact report. “Almost everything that I have learned has been new information, so I’ve learned a lot,” he says.

With Rico-Beck’s guidance, Beatty has personally identified and connected with professors in the Biological Sciences Division, PME undergraduate students, and associate deans and directors, among others, to discuss her college and career path and how she can work toward her goal of becoming a surgeon.

“I’ve been shown how to build these relationships — sending emails and meeting people who are in my field or people who could help me get to my field — and advocate for myself in a genuine way and that’s been very valuable and rewarding for my development and my career,” Beatty says.

Those aspects of the internship have helped Beatty strengthen her network, she says, as well as her resume and her confidence:

“My biggest takeaway has been that I’m able to accomplish a lot that I put my mind to.”


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