Delineating the Responsible Citizenship Internship Award and looking ahead

Posted by Julia Leef

The purpose of college is to help students prepare for their futures through the divulgence of valuable learning experiences concentrated in a particular area of interest. Many students not only commit themselves to learning during the school year, but also spend their summers doing internships that give them experience and knowledge outside of the college.

Unfortunately, like all things in life, internships cost money, or at least don't pay anything, and so students often find themselves turning down a great opportunity due to financial difficulties. The Student Government Association had that problem in mind when they established the Responsible Citizen Internship Award fund as a way to help students afford unpaid internships.

The RCIA was first proposed by last year's SGA president, Raina Bretan '10, after students voiced their desire for more internship opportunities at several student town hall meetings. "Essentially," Bretan said, "students hated having to sacrifice a worthy internship for a paid retail job." After SGA discovered a significant budget surplus, Bretan suggested using that money to help resolve the issue. "In Senate, I brought up the potential for creating a fund to compensate students for their unpaid internships," she said. "It went over really well—the rest is RCIA history."

The idea moved along quickly, turning into a formal proposal in less than a month. SGA decided to allot $75,000 per-year for the next five years, allowing 30 students to receive $2,500 each.

Other key financial questions that needed to be considered were how much of the surplus funds would be co-invested with the college's funds, how to handle the surplus itself and how to spend it. Jim Welsh '10, last year's vice president of Financial Affairs for SGA, was heavily involved in answering those questions and meeting with administrators from different areas of the college, including Vice President for Finance and Administration Mike West.

"Once it was determined that the co-investment option was the best course of action from a student perspective," Welsh said, "Raina and I asked Mike West to draw up a formal agreement between the college and SGA which could be voted on by the SGA Senate." The proposal for the RCIA and how to fund it passed, according to Welsh, "enthusiastically and overwhelmingly."

Applications came pouring in as soon as the program began, so much so that the numbers became potentially overwhelming. Almost 150 students applied, each with an outstanding application and an exciting potential internship, but with only 30 scholarships to go around.

So how did SGA decide who most deserved the money?

"It was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to sort through," said Associate Government Professor Bob Turner, who was a member of the RCIA selection committee along with Raina and Welsh.

There were applications for programs in places as far away as Tanzania and Indonesia, organizations like the Mote Marine Laboratory and the Outward Bound Center for Peace Building, with jobs that ranged from immigration reform in Washington, caring for sea turtles in Florida and working in museums. "We tried to ensure a broad array of careers were represented," Turner said. In order to fairly select the winners, the SGA selection committee developed a rubric that would help them determine which students deserved the awards. Using this rubric, they graded the application essays submitted by students that explained how the internship would benefit their education, what they would get out of the experience and what their responsibilities would be. Still, the number of great applications exceeded the available funds.

As a partial solution, the program received supplemental finances from the President's Discretionary Fund, which provided $25,000 and allowed the committee to award scholarships to 10 more deserving students.

Geneva Kraus, now a senior, was one of the recipients and had nothing but praise for the program. She was offered an archaeology internship at Klamath National Forest, but was concerned about the financial losses she would suffer in this exciting, but unpaid internship.

"One of my friends back at Skidmore . . . suggested I apply for the RCIA grant," she said, a decision that would have a huge impact on her life. "It was truly a life-changing experience because now I know the job opportunities that are out there for archaeologists and exactly what they entail," Kraus said. "Even better, I know I am capable of succeeding if I ever find myself in one of those positions." The RCIA allowed her to travel across the country without worrying about expenses that could not be accounted for with an unpaid internship.

Katherine Rasche, now a junior, also received the RCIA, and used the money to intern at the Portsmouth Museum of Fine Art in New Hampshire. After the internship she and the other recipients provided feedback about their internships to the RCIA board, as well as evidence that they were making the most of their opportunity.

Rasche said that her internship gave her the experience that she could not have had at Skidmore. "The art classes I take here are amazing," she said, "but I've only ever had experience in the studio, so this internship award gave me the opportunity to pursue an aspect of my major that I don't think I would have been able to at Skidmore."

Assistant Director of Leadership Activities Barbara Schallehn, corresponded during the summer with the award recipients and their supervisors in order to make sure that students received their awards and used them to carry out their responsibilities.

The RCIA has done much to help students along the paths to their future careers, leading to jobs, senior theses, subsequent course work and graduate school. But what lies ahead for the RCIA?

The current program is in place to continue for the next five years after which, according to Welsh, the SGA Senate must review it before it can be renewed. But the people behind the RCIA have high hopes for its future. Turner expressed his wish that the program would cause increased interest in high impact education experiences, and would lead the college to be more deliberate in building upon a student's academic career, possibly taking what is now an individual matter and bringing it onto a systematic level.

Turner said that the goal of the program is "to demonstrate the transformative education potential of these internships and to make it a priority for the college," which would then allow students to follow their interests more intimately and at a younger age. Turner has also asked the department chairs to talk with the recipients about sharing their experience with other majors, something that could benefit those who did not apply or receive the award.

Welsh hopes that the RCIA will prompt students to look into summer internship opportunities that they may not have considered without the possibility of financial backup, and also hopes for additional funding that will expand upon the number of students who will be able to pursue their interests outside of Skidmore.

"One of Raina and my goals with starting this program was to jumpstart the college's efforts and to improve the transition period for students between college and life after college," Welsh said. "I would love to see the program expand to be able to accommodate all of the many qualified applications this program has received and will continue to receive moving forward."

Jonathan Zeidan, the current SGA vice president for Financial Affairs, said that SGA will continue to support the RCIA program and will use the annual interest from its investment with the college to continue to fund the program. "It is my responsibility to ensure that all the other financial operations are appropriately handled so students can continue to benefit from the Responsible Citizen Internship Award," he said.

Bretan, when asked how she thought the RCIA would progress in the years to come, mentioned that, at some schools, the administration provides each student with one summer of funds for unpaid internships, and hoped that one day the same could be said of Skidmore.

"We're starting small, but hopefully one day we can build on this goal," Bretan said.

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