For many college students, the biggest obstacle in deciding whether to acquire an internship is being able to afford the time needed to complete it. Many unpaid internships provide valuable on-the-job experience to a student but aren’t financially viable.

Now in its second year, the State Employees Credit Union, or SECU, is providing funding to programs at several campuses in the UNC system that is allowing students to pursue summer internships in different fields of public service. The unique nature of the program is that the internships are service- and community-related, specifically designed to help smaller, rural parts of North Carolina.

“It’s about giving the students funds to support themselves,” said Susan McCracken, the director of career development and economic engagement at Appalachian State University. “Because the ASU internship work is for public service – law enforcement, working for attorneys, probation officers – it sometimes requires erratic hours, which can make having a second job to pay the bills difficult.”

Appalachian State, East Carolina University and UNC Pembroke were the first three UNC system campuses to initiate the partnership with SECU. In the second year, Fayetteville State University, Elizabeth City State University, Western Carolina University, Winston-Salem State University and UNC Wilmington have been added. Each university receives $100,000, and grants $5,000 each to 20 students.

Leslie Boney, vice president for International, Community and Economic Engagement for the UNC system, said the program is designed to benefit the rural parts of North Carolina by showing students potential career opportunities.

“Rural leaders in the state have been worried for some time about a ‘rural brain drain’ – students going off to college and not coming back,” he said. “This program can show them what opportunities are available. What the program does is provide students a chance to work in a rural area. When the time comes for them to go to work, they have an informed choice as to what is possible in rural North Carolina.”

"We are so pleased with the success of the SECU Public Fellows Internship Program and the opportunities it is providing for students to gain valuable work experience in their home counties," said Jama Dagenhart, SECU Foundation Executive Director. "SECU members are proud to partner with the UNC System for an educational initiative that has the potential to make a huge impact in the future development and sustainability of our rural communities, while helping college students with the framework to achieve their career goals."

Not only can the funds be used for food and rent, McCracken said, but also can be used to purchase items that will help the interns in their work, such as appropriate clothing.

“One student said he didn’t have a suit to wear to work,” she said. “Another used the money to support her family and her child.”

Jackson Weisner, a senior at ASU, embodies what the internship hopes to accomplish. Weisner, a criminal justice major, spent his summer interning with the police department in his hometown of Thomasville. After he graduates in December, Weisner said he plans on going to the police academy in January and then apply for a job with one of the police departments or sheriff’s offices in the Triad area.

During his internship, Weisner worked with several units in the police department, including the patrol division, the detective bureau and the vice squad.

“It was very eye-opening to what their work is,” said Weisner, whose father and brother are police officers. “I always enjoy service work. When I was younger, I did mission trips. There’s no greater service than being a police officer and serving the public every day.”

Weisner said the internship money was useful in helping to buy clothes for his work, such as tactical pants, and also for eating meals out with officers every day, which allowed him to ask questions to understand the work better. It also meant he didn’t have to get a second part-time job, which would have been difficult to manage given the 12-hour shifts the department works.

“The biggest thing I learned is how hard the job is,” he said. “With 12-hour shifts, you don’t realize how long the days are and how hot it gets. You learn what kind of person it takes to do the job, and the internship showed me the route I need to take.”

Sgt. Jamie McClanathan, who organized Weisner’s internship, said he tried to give Weisner as diverse an experience as possible.

“Jackson did an excellent job,” he said. “We tried to afford him every opportunity we could to work with the various departments. All of the reports I got back about him were very positive.”

Fellow ASU senior Lola Benfield of Valdese became interested in food security and food deserts after travelling with 12 other students to Belize. The experience taught her that food security isn’t just an international problem, but a domestic one as well. She decided to accept an SECU internship with the Hunger & Health Coalition, a food bank that serves those in need in Boone.

“I was trying to come to terms with the fact that there is so much food insecurity in Watauga County,” she said. “I decided to do my internship with Hunger & Health Coalition. I heard about them through a club I’m in at App. So, I just decided to apply for the internship and I was very lucky to get it, and to get the grant to allow me to do that.”

Working for a nonprofit, Benfield was asked to work in many aspects of the organization, such as working in the food pantry and dealing with the organization’s clients. Benfield said she was able to learn how nonprofits work, such as policies and operations.

“I played whatever role was needed for that day,” she said. “I would deliver food to the western part of the county, which is a food desert. There are a lot of people there without access to transportation and who needed our services. I did a little bit of everything; I got a feel for the whole organization.”

Crystal Winebarger, director of operations for the organization, said Benfield took to the internship immediately and was able to perform whatever task she was assigned.

“She was wonderful,” Winebarger said. “She was always so pleasant and dependable. She was always wonderful with our clients. We couldn’t ask for a better intern. She’s definitely one of the best interns we’ve ever had. She had a very good rapport with the people she served, which is very important.”

Benfield is scheduled to graduate in December and will accept a job with Teach For America.

McCracken said the Appalachian State internships are offered through the university’s criminal justice program, as well as to Access Scholars, students who can attend the university debt-free if they or their families are at 100 percent or less of the poverty rate.

Daisy Osborn, assistant director of career services at Fayetteville State, said their summer program is just wrapping up its first year of internships, but she’s already looking forward to expanding the scope and reach of the program next year.

“There was a lot of interest from our students,” she said. “It was an opportunity to get paid more than minimum wage, which helped them with their bills and other expenses. I think, because of that, they took more pride in their internships, because there was a monetary value to what they were doing.”

Osborn said some of Fayetteville State’s interns worked for the university campus offices, while others worked for the city of Fayetteville. Osborn said she tried matching students’ skills sets and majors to the various openings.

“Next year, I want to look at majors which may not have the same internship opportunities – criminal justice, social sciences, psychology, geography,” she said. “We’re going to try to cast a wide net and see who can benefit from it.”

--Written by Phillip Ramati

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