Eshauna Smith op-ed in Medium: Take a chance on a high school intern — and you could change a life

Read the full article on Medium.

Take a chance on a high school intern — and you could change a life

By Eshauna Smith, CEO of Urban Alliance

Last fall, Kenneth Wells was excited to begin his first professional work experience … until he found out where he’d be working.

Kenneth wants to be an engineer, so when he heard he’d be interning for the Folger Shakespeare Library, he was nonplussed.

Fast forward a year, and Kenneth was standing on stage at the annual Urban Alliance Public Speaking Challenge, holding back tears as he recounted how much his internship experience — and particularly the relationship he developed with his mentor at the Folger — meant to him.

As a senior at Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School in Washington, D.C., Kenneth applied for Urban Alliance, a nonprofit program that partners with the business community to provide paid internships, one-on-one mentoring, and job skills training to youth from underserved communities.

After weeks of training, Kenneth began his internship in the information technology department at the Folger. He expected to be doing busywork as a high school intern, but his mentor recognized Kenneth’s potential and gave him the responsibility of ensuring that all the Folger’s computers were up to date and running smoothly. He left his internship with the skills he will need to succeed in his chosen career path.

“I plan on majoring in Electronic Engineering at Norfolk State University,” Kenneth said, “and now I’m one step ahead of the game.”

In addition, Kenneth left his internship with a strong male role model — his mentor, Matt — whom he can call on if he ever needs advice or support in the future.

“Matt made me feel meaningful,” Kenneth said. “He instilled in me the motivation to be myself while stepping out of my comfort zone.”

Standing on that stage earlier this month, Kenneth recounted how tears came to his eyes when he saw that Matt came to cheer him on at his high school graduation. When he presented Matt with Urban Alliance D.C.’s Mentor of the Year Award, the two shared a giant bear hug and fought back some more tears.

Kenneth’s experience illustrates why Urban Alliance’s work is so important — we provide valuable work experience and mentoring to students who would otherwise not have access to it — and in the process, inspire them to dream and succeed.

Now, thanks to a just-completed study of our program’s impact, we also know that Kenneth’s success is by no means unique.

Urban Alliance partnered with Urban Institute, an independent, nonprofit, research organization, to run a six-year randomized controlled trial to see what kind of impact our work has on post-high school success when all other contributing factors are held equal. According to the Social Impact Exchange, only two percent of nonprofits commit to such a rigorous form of evaluation.

Our independent study found that completing our flagship High School Internship Program boosts the chances that young men like Kenneth will attend college by 23 percentage points and the chances that students with a mid-tier grade point average will attend a four-year college by 18 percentage points. The study also showed that students are more likely to be comfortable with and retain the soft skills such as professional communication, dressing professionally, and making presentations that we teach them before beginning their internships — particularly young men.

However, our model doesn’t work without our job partners. Taking on a high school intern with no previous work experience is certainly a risk — but the dividends are immense.

Not everyone can say that they helped guide a young person to a more successful future, or that they helped a young person discover hidden strengths. Urban Alliance mentors can.

Our mission began in Washington, D.C. in 1996 when one honest young man, asked what he needed to be successful, replied, “a job.” Since then, we’ve worked with job partners to provide internships and intensive mentoring to over 3,000 economically-disadvantaged youth in D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and Northern Virginia.

All it takes to turn that number into 4,000 young people, or 5,000, is another company willing to take a chance and change a life. We’ve proven that our work gets results — join us.