By Tom Lotshaw

A paid summer internship program at Western Carolina University pairs students with local nonprofits and community organizations in a partnership that helps each student succeed and benefits the community as a whole.

Interning with Circles of Jackson County this summer, Grace Chastain of Sylva, an English graduate, said she gained work experience in a variety of communications roles. Chastain helped run a blog, rewrite web pages, post on social media, and create newsletters, brochures, and other materials for the local nonprofit, which works with volunteers to help Jackson County families to escape poverty.

“It was a great experience,” Chastain said. “My supervisor placed me in many positions where I was actively learning while being able to serve the organization well at the same time. This was the first time I was able to take all the things I learned in the classroom and apply them legitimately outside of it.

Alexa Lockhart interned at Sylva’s Center for Domestic Peace.

Alexa Lockhart, a senior from Wake Forest majoring in sociology, interned at the Center for Domestic Peace, a nonprofit organization in Sylva that works to end interpersonal violence through prevention, intervention, and l public education.

After completing a 20-hour training that allowed her to assist in direct work with customers, Lockhart assisted in answering a hotline, speaking to customers, collecting incident data, and assisting people to connect with service providers. “I was doing a lot of things,” she said. “It was very convenient, which I liked.”

Chastain and Lockhart are two of 20 WCU students who participated in the State Employees Credit Union Public Scholars Internship Program this summer.

The SECU Foundation launched the program in 2015 to connect talented undergraduate students with local nonprofits and community groups. The goal is to give students work experience that contributes to local communities and builds their nonprofit capacity and reduces the drain of talent from rural North Carolina.

WCU has participated in the internship program since 2017. The program is now offered at all universities in the UNC system, and more than 1,000 students have completed internships in 60 counties across North Carolina. The SECU Foundation supports the Internship Program, as well as other scholarship and grant programs, through the collective impact of monthly $1 contributions to the foundation that SECU account holders choose to make.

WCU receives $100,000 per year from the SECU Foundation to provide the 20 summer internships. The funding facilitates paid internships that many nonprofits would struggle or be unable to provide on their own.

“We’ve focused our program on students who don’t necessarily have a clear or linear career path – students majoring in the humanities or social sciences who can do a lot of different things with their degrees, but don’t know what yet. they want to focus after graduation,” said Theresa Cruz Paul, director of WCU’s Center for Career and Professional Development.

“Another goal is to try to help students see these nonprofits and consider them as career paths, to build communities, but also to stay in North Carolina after they graduate. diploma.”

Students who are accepted into the internship program work 30 hours per week for 10 weeks and are paid $5,000. They also attend bi-weekly meetings as a group with staff from the Career and Professional Development Center.

Grace Chestnut

Grace Chastain, right, interned with Circles of Jackson County this summer.

Topics for discussion at these meetings can range from professionalism and workplace culture to leadership and ethics. WCU staff also help students identify and develop their strengths.

“It was a really cool element of the program that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought,” Chastain said. “It required us to do a lot of thinking about our internship while it was happening, and what we were learning, with other people going through similar experiences.”

Chastain and Lockhart said they recommend the program to all students looking for summer internship opportunities. The internship is paid and provides valuable work experience. And it helps students explore potential career opportunities while contributing to a good local cause.

“I knew that people in my university program usually worked in nonprofits, but I didn’t know what that would be like. Getting professional work experience and seeing what a career path might look like has been really helpful as someone who just didn’t know,” Chastain said.

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