Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Putting public service into practice



Salomé Otero ’23 doesn’t mince words about the social impact internship she had in 2022. “It was transformational for me,” she says.

Otero, who majored in management with a concentration in education, always felt that education would play some role in her career path after MIT, but she wasn’t sure how. That all changed her junior year, when she got an email from the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG Center) about an internship at The Last Mile, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides education and technology training for justice-impacted individuals.

Otero applied and was selected as a web curriculum and re-entry intern at The Last Mile the summer between her junior and senior year — an eye-opening experience that cemented her post-graduation plans. “You hear some amazing stories, like this person was incarcerated before the iPhone had come out. Now he’s a software developer,” she explains. “And for me, the idea of using computer science education for good appealed to me on many fronts. But even if I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work at The Last Mile, the fact that I saw a job description for this role and learned that companies have the resources to make a difference … I didn’t know that there were people and organizations dedicating their time and energy into this.”

She was so inspired that, when she returned for her senior year, Otero found work at two education labs at MIT, completed another social impact internship over Independent Activities Period (IAP) at G{Code}, an education nonprofit that provides computer science education to women and nonbinary people of color, and decided to apply to graduate school. “I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that I would not be pursuing a PhD in education policy right now if it weren’t for the PKG Center,” she says. She will begin her doctorate this fall.

Otero’s experience doesn’t surprise Jill Bassett, associate dean and director of the PKG Center. “MIT students are deeply concerned about the world’s most challenging problems,” she says. “And social impact internships are an incredible way for them to leverage their unique talents and skills to help create meaningful change while broadening their perspectives and discovering potential career paths.”

“There’s a lot more out there”

Founded 35 years ago, the PKG Center offers a robust portfolio of experiential learning programs broadly focused on four themes: climate change, health equity, racial justice, and tech for social good. The Center’s Social Impact Internship Program provides funded internships to students interested in working with government agencies, nonprofits, and social ventures. Students reap rich rewards from these experiences, including learning ways to make social change, informing their academic journey and career path, and gaining valuable professional skills.

“It was a really good learning opportunity,” says Juliet Liao ’23, a graduate of MIT’s Naval ROTC program who commissioned as a submarine officer in June. She completed a social impact internship with the World Wildlife Fund, where she researched greenhouse gas emissions related to the salmon industry. “I haven’t had much exposure to what work outside of the Navy looks like and what I’m interested in working on. And I really liked the science-based approach to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions.”

Amina Abdalla, a rising junior in biological engineering, arrived at MIT with a strong interest in health care and determined to go to medical school. But her internship at MassHealth, the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program provider for the state of Massachusetts, broadened her understanding of the complexity of the health care system and introduced her to many career options that she didn’t know existed.

“They did coffee chats between interns and various people who work in MassHealth, such as doctors, lawyers, policy advocates, and consultants. There’s a lot more out there that one can do with the degree that they get and the knowledge they gain. It just depends on your interests, and I came away from that really excited,” she says. The experience inspired her to take a class in health policy before she graduates. “I know I want to be a doctor and I have a lot of interest in science in general, but if I could do some kind of public sector impact with that knowledge, I would definitely be interested in doing that.”

Social impact internships also provide an opportunity for students to hone their analytical, technical, and people skills. Selma Sharaf ’22 worked on developing a first-ever climate action plan for Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, one of two all-women’s historically Black colleges and universities in the United States. She conducted research and stakeholder interviews with nonprofits; sustainability directors at similar colleges; local utility companies; and faculty, staff, and students at Bennett.

“Our external outreach efforts with certain organizations allowed me to practice having conversations about energy justice and climate issues with people who aren’t already in this space. I learned how useful it can be to not only discuss the overall issues of climate change and carbon emissions, but to also zoom in on more relatable personal-level impacts,” she says. Sharaf is currently working in clean energy consulting and plans to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford University’s Atmosphere/Energy Program this fall.

Working with “all stars”

Organizations that partner with the PKG Center are often constrained by limited technical and financial resources. Since the program is funded by the PKG Center, these internships help expand their organizational capacity and broaden their impact; MIT students can take on projects that might not otherwise get done, and they also bring fresh skills and ideas to the organization — and the zeal to pursue those ideas.

Emily Moberg ’11, PhD ’16 got involved with the social impact internship programs in 2020. Moberg, who is the director of Scope 3 Carbon Measurement and Mitigation at the World Wildlife Fund, has worked with 20 MIT students since then, including Liao. The body of work that Liao and several other interns completed has been published in the form of 10 briefs on mitigating greenhouse gas emissions from key commodities, such as soy, beef, coffee, and palm oil.

“Social impact interns bring technical skills, deep curiosity, and tenacity,” Moberg says. “I’ve worked with students across many majors, including computer and materials science; all of them bring a new, fresh perspective to our problems and often sophisticated quantitative ability. Their presence often helps us to investigate new ideas or expand a project. In some cases, interns have proposed new projects and ideas themselves. The support from the PKG Center for us to host these interns has been critical, especially for these new explorations.”

Anne Carrington Hayes, associate professor and executive director of the Global Leadership and Interdisciplinary Studies program at Bennett College, calls the MIT interns she’s worked with since 2021 “all stars.” The work Sharaf and three other students performed has culminated in a draft climate action plan that will inform campus renovations and other measures that will be implemented at the college in the coming years.

“They have been foundational in helping me to research, frame, collect data, and engage with our students and the community around issues of environmental justice and sustainability, particularly from the lens of what would be impactful and meaningful for women of color at Bennett College,” she says.

Balancing supply and demand

Bassett says that the social impact internship program has grown exponentially in the past few years. Before the pandemic, the program served five students from summer 2019 to spring 2020; it now serves about 125 students per year. Over that time, funding has become a significant limiting factor; demand for internships was three times the number of available internships in summer 2022, and five times the supply during IAP 2023.

“MIT students have no shortage of opportunities available to them in the private sector, yet students are seeking social impact internships because they want to apply their skills to issues that they care about,” says Julie Uva, the PKG Center’s program administrator for social impact internships and employment. “We want to ensure every student who wants a social impact internship can access that experience.”

MIT has taken note of this financial shortfall: the Task Force 2021 report recommended fundraising to alleviate the under-supply of social impact experiential learning opportunities (ELOs), and MIT’s Fast Forward Climate Action Plan called on the Institute to make a climate or clean-energy ELOs available to every undergraduate who wants one. As a result, the Office of Experiential Learning is working with Resource Development to raise new funding to support many more opportunities, which would be available to students not only through the PKG Center but also other offices and programs, such as MIT D-Lab, Undergraduate Research Opportunity Programs, MISTI, and the Environmental Solutions Initiative, among others.

That’s welcome news to Salomé Otero. She’s familiar with the Institute’s fundraising efforts, having worked as one of the Alumni Association’s Tech Callers. Now, as an alumna herself and a former social impact intern, she has an appreciation for the power of philanthropy.

“MIT is ahead of the game compared to so many universities, in so many ways,” she says. “But if they want to continue to do that in the most impactful way possible, I think investing in ideas and missions like the PKG Center is the way to go. So when that call comes, I’ll tell whoever is working that night shift, ‘Yeah, I’ll donate to the PKG Center.’”



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