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University of Wisconsin-Madison senior Thaddeus Gue had lined up his summer internship at a Chicago architecture firm.
“I was going to be a junior strategist intern,” said Gue, who studies interior architecture. “That really focuses on design strategy, verifying construction sites and all the details there, and we also would talk with clients about what their needs are before relaying that to design staff.”
But about two weeks into Illinois’ stay-at-home order, Gue found out his internship offer was revoked due to the shutdown.
Gue is among many college students this spring whose summer plans were canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
After hearing similar stories from several alumni in its network, The Commons, a Milwaukee-based accelerator program for entrepreneurial college students, decided to help fill the gap.
“Many of our alumni emailed us, saying, ‘I lost my internship. Is there anything on your radar?’ That was more frequently coming back to us, so we decided let’s gauge the market here,” said Joe Poeschl, program director and co-founder of The Commons. “We did a simple LinkedIn post, asking if you had had your internship disrupted, and made a simple form on our website. Within a week, we had 180 students fill out the form, and we realized this is a bigger issue than we even knew.”
By not offering internships, the region is at risk of letting the current talent pipeline “grow cold,” Poeschl said.
In response, The Commons began connecting with industry partners to design a 10-week virtual, part-time internship program that area companies can utilize.
The timing of the pandemic required the organization to use the skills it tries to instill in its students – gathering customer feedback, using design thinking and delivering a product quickly – to get the program off the ground. It kicked off June 8.
“We did this in four weeks,” Poeschl said of the planning process. “We said, we’re going to do this really high quality, using customer feedback, and do it quickly.”
More than 160 students applied within 48 hours of the program application being launched. It netted more than 650 applications altogether.
The program is open to any college student studying in Wisconsin, or any Wisconsin high school graduate who is currently in college.
The first two weeks will focus on orienting students to “what it takes to develop a new idea,” Poeschl said. Participating companies will have the opportunity to submit innovation challenges for the program and serve as virtual mentors to the interns.
“They’ll be open-ended innovation-based challenges,” Poeschl said. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, here’s a trend in the market, here’s the market segment we would like to deliver value to. How do you put these things together to create some sort of software app, physical product or new service?’”
Project management, communication with students and professional development sessions will all be offered in-house by The Commons.
The Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition provided $75,000 in initial seed money for the program, enough to fund 25 internships. The Tech Hub – a collaboration of more than 20 employers in the region – is also providing support to source technical projects and tools, along with access to technical mentors.
“In addition to the obvious goal of helping these students gain critical skills and stay on track toward their learning goal, we also want to share with these students more about the Milwaukee tech community and showcase how they can help solve real issues in some of the world’s most essential industries,” Kathy Henrich, chief executive officer for the Milwaukee Tech Hub Coalition, said in a statement.
Other funding has come from philanthropic and business partners, Poeschl said.
“We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire, trying to find as much funding to support these students as we can,” he said.
Gue heard about The Commons’ program from his career mentor through the Posse Foundation scholarship program.
While his initial plans fell through, Gue sees the silver lining in the new opportunity.
“I’m an aspiring design strategist, and design strategy focuses on stepping back from the design process and ensuring we get the steps correct – the questioning, prototyping, content refinement,” he said. “When I saw (The Commons’) projects, it reminded me of the process of design thinking, which focuses on identifying end users and prototyping and ideating and making as many ideas as possible to get the right idea.”
Abbie Papka, a Marquette University student who’s preparing to enter her final semester of college, was also left scrambling in early May when, in a matter of four days, she learned she had landed a summer software development internship at a Madison company and later that the internship had been canceled.
“Once the virus started shutting things down, (the firm) decided to go on a hiring freeze because of the unpredictability and not knowing what the future looked like,” she said. “It was sort of like having the rug pulled out from you. Going into my last semester, not having a summer internship was quite scary.”
Papka, who is studying bioinformatics and Spanish, learned about The Commons internship program in an email, and applied the same day. She sees it as a good opportunity to work with students and professionals from different industries and backgrounds.
Papka said she’s been struck by how other participating students are volunteering to give up their internship stipends to make more room for other students.
“It’s really cool. They’re trying to get as many students involved as they can,” she said. “Everyone is pitching in to help.”
After spending a large part of their semester doing classwork online, Papka and Gue said they are better prepared to do an internship virtually.
Papka said it requires an extra level of proactivity to stay on top of work and get the most out of the experience.
“I did three years of high school online, so I’m a little more accustomed to holding yourself accountable and those things that are crucial to the online learning experience, but it’s definitely been a challenge to stay motivated,” she said. “(The internship) will be different than being in the office and having mentorship without having to reach out. I’ll have to be a little more proactive.”
Gue said he expects the virtual internship will grow his communication skills.
“For my field … we do a lot of hands-on work,” he said. We draw, we make diagrams and get in-person feedback from professors. It was really difficult to do that online, although we made it work. This internship is going to be different because now that I’ve adjusted to that online process, I know what I need to work on to portray my ideas to others. I think it’s going to really push me.”
Poeschl said providing these types of experiences for students in Milwaukee is important in attracting and retaining future workers in the state.
“The macro view of this is how do you engage this young talent so they understand what it’s like doing quality work and doing that work locally?” he said. “We’re really convinced it requires a high touch to make mentorship relationships and network relationships to gain a deeper appreciation for what it’s like to work here in southeast Wisconsin.”