During his six weeks as an intern in the UChicago Office for Military-Affiliated Communities, rising high school junior Joshua 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. Polk, who lives in Bronzeville and attends Martin Luther King Jr. College Prep high school, had little previous experience with veterans’ issues so exploring the field as one of 10 Chicago high school students participating in the University’s new Youth Internship Program pilot this summer was eye-opening.
“Almost everything that I have learned has been new information, so I’ve learned a lot,” he says.
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 Polk with meaningful work experience, career exploration opportunities, mentorship, and college readiness and access support. This year’s interns represent four local high schools and are interning across seven UChicago departments. The program is set to expand to at least 30 students next year, with plans to ultimately host 100 high schoolers per summer.
Polk says he was first drawn to the Youth Internship Program because of its emphasis on professional development in addition to practical work experience.
“The fact that it was a free opportunity to get some work experience was what first interested me but the more I read about it, the more interested I got because it talked a lot about different professional development opportunities, and business skills, and stuff like that, and going into business is what I want to do in the future,” Polk said. “It’s a great program, and everyone was very helpful and super kind.”
Besides helping interns build a network of mentors and future professional contacts, the program dedicates each Tuesday to college readiness and professional skill-building. Those days, which often featured guest speakers, career readiness exercises, and group projects, were among Polk’s favorites, he says. The group activities have helped him hone the 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, who plans to one day attend business school, says. “Also, my supervisor has let me join meetings with him and his team so I can see how a team functions together and it’s really helped me get to know a team setting.”
Terrell Odom, director of the Office for Military-Affiliated Communities and Polk’s internship supervisor, says working with Polk this summer has been beneficial on multiple levels, lightening his team’s workload and introducing Polk to new professional fields and resources. The experience has also been encouraging for Odom personally, he says, as an African American man who also grew up on Chicago’s South Side.
“I think this an excellent opportunity to take young men and women in the community to get engaged and gain the skills that are needed for life, for their goals, to show them something different than what they see,” Odom says. “I think them having this type of experience and this type of exposure, especially at a place like UChicago, is phenomenal.”