Virtual internships help students, employers blossom during COVID-19


Chicago Eco House works to alleviate poverty and bring viable industry into disinvested neighborhoods through a unique model: The nonprofit turns vacant lots into sustainable, regenerative flower farms, and also operates Southside Blooms, a “farm-to-vase” flower shop.

On the farms and in the shop, young people ages 16–25 receive job training; through a partnership with Chicago Public Schools and the Woodlawn nonprofit Young Life, K–8 students come to the farms to learn about urban agriculture and entrepreneurship in an after-school program.

The overall goal, says Eco House founder Quilen Blackwell, who was recently featured on the Today show, is to increase opportunities for underserved youth on the South and West sides. “We’re training people how to work,” he said, “and our engagement with younger students is a pipeline into our workforce development program. As they get older, we hope they’ll join us on the farms.” 

Contributing to community while in quarantine

When COVID-19 hit, Blackwell needed a new way to work with students in the after-school program, who could no longer come to the farms. At the same time, Mahima Akula, UChicago College class of 2022, had left Hyde Park for her home in Irving, TX, and was attending classes remotely. “Not having a community to engage with was isolating,” she said, “and I was looking for a way to connect and be part of something.”

Akula signed up for the University’s Micro-Metcalf Program, which connects students to micro-internships with nonprofits, corporate employers, and UChicago faculty researchers. These paid, short-term projects give students the chance to gain professional experience outside of the traditional summer internship cycle — and, most important this year, they can be completed remotely.

With the help of a COVID-19 grant from the University, Blackwell and his team had purchased equipment to create a video series and accompanying seed kit to guide students through growing basil and making basil lemonade to sell. Akula researched best practices for virtual learning and compiled a curriculum of activities to supplement the videos, such as creating a basic business plan and making a TV commercial for the lemonade.

“They gave me a lot of freedom and creativity,” Akula said, “which was great. There was a lot of problem-solving and figuring out what would work.”

Metcalf Program links students with growth opportunities

The Micro-Metcalf Program, launched in the fall of 2018 and significantly expanded after the advent of COVID-19, is an innovation of the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program of UChicago Career Advancement.

Each year, the Metcalf Program provides College students with more than 3,000 substantive, paid internships all over the world in organizations that range from nonprofits like Braven Chicago to Fortune 500 companies like Goldman Sachs. This year, the University has expanded virtual internship opportunities to support both students and employers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Employers want to hire experienced workers — and for college students not yet working full-time, that experience often comes through internships. “Prior experience is the No. 1 factor in employer hiring decisions, and our top priority is to give students the skills and experience they need to thrive in today’s job market,” said Meredith Daw, associate vice president and executive director of Career Advancement.

“Through the Jeff Metcalf Internship Program and the Micro-Metcalf Program, students can access substantive career experiences and build relationships with employers and faculty. Our employer and faculty partners can in turn source new talent and get critical support for important projects.”

To ensure students of all career interests can access meaningful internships, the Metcalf Program provides funding to support opportunities with employers that might otherwise lack the resources to hire paid interns, including nonprofits, social service agencies, and arts and culture organizations. For students who want to try their hand at short-term virtual volunteer projects, Career Advancement’s new UC Impact program for second-year students gives teams of students an opportunity to work on a social impact initiative with employers across a diverse range of industries.

Sharing the Eco House ethos beyond Chicago

Blackwell said that Akula’s work during her Micro-Metcalf internship will likely help Eco House expand its K–8 curriculum from seventy-five Chicago students to a worldwide audience. “When our videos are done, we plan to make the entire program available to our partners in the North American Association for Environmental Education,” which has more than 20,000 members in 30 countries.

“Mahima’s fresh perspective was great,” he added, “and she brought a real calmness to us when we felt like we were in a 911 emergency situation to get things figured out. She was exactly the kind of high-caliber student you’d expect from the University of Chicago.” Back in Chicago for Autumn Quarter, Akula got to meet Blackwell in person at one Eco House flower farm location and discuss the work.

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