Junior Practicum Students Tackle Complex Problems, Career Readiness, Internships

Students enrolled in the new Junior Practicum program have just finished the month-long Career Readiness and Skill-Building Summit and many are now beginning micro-internships or research opportunities. The practicum was created to give College third-years — who are not in Oberlin due to the College’s three-semester plan to de-densify campus — an outlet to continue learning and preparing for their futures, even while not in classes.

Last month’s summit provided students with skills such as résumé building, developing networking skills, practicing for interviews, and workplace negotiation. In addition to these foundational career readiness skills, participating students also tackled social and political problems such as gentrification and climate change, as well as how to navigate identity in the workplace. 

“Throughout the summit, students grappled with a range of complex problems, reflected on their own identities and position in society, and built skills in important professional areas,” Associate Dean of Students and Executive Director of the Career Development Center Dana Hamdan wrote in an email to the Review. “By combining all of these elements into one program, we demonstrated that no one piece of your career development can be understood in isolation.”

Following the mid-June announcement that College third-years would enroll in the fall semester, the Career Development Center quickly created the Junior Practicum, designing it in just nine weeks. After students completed the Career Readiness Summit, the Career Center matched participants with an internship — many of which are hosted by alumni or the relatives of Obies — or with a faculty-led research project. 


Career Readiness Summit

The Career Readiness Summit met for the month of September with around four to five hours of programming each day — the required time commitment for a full Winter Term project. The practicum was the primary avenue for third-years to earn credit for Winter Term, which is taking place during a different month for each class year. 

The significant time commitment posed problems for some students. College third-year Sofia Zarzuela found that she could not balance the Junior Practicum with her job, so she left the program. 

“I didn’t know that the Junior Practicum was going to be so time intensive,” she said. “I have a job, and it basically proved impossible to do practicum and the job.”

As part of an effort to make the program financially accessible, third-years were eligible to receive $300 for winning a pitch competition at the end of the summit and $800 for completing an internship or research project. 

College third-year Miranda Harris, who completed the summit and is beginning an internship, believes that the foundational skills such as résumé building that the program taught participating third-years were a vital step to ensuring students’ future success. 

“Teaching it to all of us really helps level out the playing field and make it more equitable for us to be going out into the workforce,” Harris said. “No matter what preparation we’ve had, we all got this. I think that I am more prepared going into my internship from having the practicum, and I’m sure that it will also help me throughout my life and my career.”

Beyond foundational skills, the program also asked students to grapple with their own identities and how to navigate their positionality in the workplace. This part of the program did not always run smoothly, according to College third-year Nasirah Fair. Fair wrote an op-ed reflecting on her negative experiences as a Black student in a predominantly white institution and a predominantly white Junior Practicum cohort. She also criticized the guest workshop facilitators who led an identity-based workshop early on in the program for using language that was offensive to many students. 

“I really appreciated Nasirah Fair’s op-ed in the Review,” Hamdan wrote. “I thought it clearly identified the challenges of doing serious equity work as part of career development at a predominantly white institution. The challenges discussed in that article were a significant motivation for creating the Junior Practicum in the first place; to help students develop the tools necessary to not only survive, but thrive, in these environments.” 

“I don’t think the Junior Practicum is the full solution, nor did we get every piece right,” Hamdan continued. “But I do think that programs like this move us toward more inclusive academic and professional spaces, and thinking about how to better prepare and support students of color as they launch into post-grad life is one of my top priorities.”

Throughout the program, the Junior Practicum also addressed complex problems such as climate change, the prison industrial complex, and public health. For the first two and a half weeks, students heard from keynote speakers who addressed the issue of the day.   

During the final week, students were divided into groups and tasked with coming up with creative and entrepreneurial solutions to the complex problems. The week ended in a pitch competition, in which the winners of 11 groups received $300 each — totaling roughly 89 students. Some students encouraged their affluent peers to consider donating their winnings to the student-run Coronavirus Oberlin Mutual Aid fund

Harris believes that the pitch competition’s practical approach was a great way for her and her peers to approach difficult topics. 

“We spend four years at Oberlin having really important conversations that we absolutely should have, but I don’t think a lot of people learn how to translate it into action,” Harris said. “I think Dana and the Career [Development] Center gave us an opportunity to learn how to turn the conversations that we have in college into action and how to use our responsibility to better the world — to do that in each of our career paths.”

Hamdan’s goal was for the program to give students the opportunity to practically approach complex problems, a mindset she hopes they will carry forward after Oberlin. 

“The decision to organize significant pieces of the program around a series of complex problems was ultimately about recognizing that all of this context matters when it comes to career development,” Hamdan wrote. “For a student interested in public health, for example, understanding the key epidemiological challenges of the future will inform the opportunities you pursue today. As the Career Development Center, we need to meet students halfway and help translate their real-world passions into tangible, long-term opportunities.”


Internships and Research

This month, students are beginning eight-week research projects and micro-internships. Students who participate in this experiential component of the program are eligible to earn up to $800. Of the 300 students who participated in the summit, 162 are starting remote micro-internships, and 111 are participating in faculty-led research projects. 

Students have been matched with internships at organizations such as NASA, the American Council on Education, medical schools, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Some faculty-led research projects include Online Campaigning in the 2020 Congressional Election with Erwin N. Griswold Professor of Politics Michael Parkin, Writing for Theater and Performance in the time of Black Lives Matters with Professor of Africana Studies and Professor and Chair of the Theater Department Caroline Jackson-Smith, and Big Data in Marine Science with Assistant Professor of Geology Rachel Eveleth. 

Harris has an internship with the international law firm Allen and Overy, where she will be working directly on immigration cases in the pro bono department. Her supervisor is an Oberlin alum and trustee.

“I’m so excited,” Harris said. “I’m kind of living my dream. It’s absolutely the best internship that I even could have dreamed of.”

Harris says that the Junior Practicum has been a very meaningful experience for her. 

“It gave me the reassurance that this path of being a lawyer, going to law school is absolutely right for me and that I am cut out for it,” Harris said. “I think this is the happiest I’ve been to be a student at Oberlin.”

Looking to the future, Hamdan says that it is too early to determine how the Junior Practicum may continue in years to come. However, she plans to carry forward the guiding principles of the program. 

“One piece that I know will remain consistent is planning programs that allow us to, as much as possible, level the playing field and offer high-quality professional development opportunities to all students, regardless of racial identity or socioeconomic status,” Hamdan wrote.