Social and Environmental Justice Internship Cohort

Summer at Lawrence is a time for students to expand their personal growth through opportunities presented by the university. Whether working for the Summer Institute, attending camps and festivals, or partaking in research programs alongside professors, there are many on-campus opportunities to meet the needs and interests of different students. One such opportunity is the Social and Environmental Justice (SEJ) Internship Cohort. 

As the name suggests, the cohort connects its student members with Milwaukee or Appleton-based social and/or environmental justice-oriented internships for the summer. Official activities begin during winter term, when 10-12 participants are selected from a pool of applicants to take part in the program. Eligibility for the SEJ Cohort is not dependent upon a student’s major. 

Throughout spring term, students participate in a 2-credit tutorial during which they learn what exactly social and environmental justice means, what working for a nonprofit is like and methods for community building. During the summer, when students are working full-time at their internship sites, they participate in weekly Zoom check-ins to reflect on their experiences, and finally, the following fall term, they take another 2-credit tutorial to debrief and complete a reflection poster on what they learned through their internship. 

This year was the program’s second year under its new name. Previously, it was known as Sustainable China, where students would take a fall term class before heading overseas in December to study sustainability in China.  

Associate Professor of Government Jason Brozek is at the head of the cohort. This year, he recruited ten students who completed internships with eight different organizations whose focus ranged from urban farming to helping bring sports and musical education to children.  

Stipends were paid to the students to help cover the inevitable food, housing, transportation, and other expenses. As a first-generation student himself, Brozek explained that the goal was to give students who need to earn and save money during the summer the ability to partake in professional development experiences that would ordinarily have been unpaid – experiences that Brozek did not have access to in his college days. Brozek expressed his gratitude for the alumni and community who made this important part of conducting the program possible.  

Working with non-profit organizations outside of Lawrence is imperative to the success of the SEJ Internship Cohort. Brozek and his associates in the Career Center (who he also gives his thanks to, as collaboration with them is crucial for the program) contact nonprofits that either they have connections to or that the students recommend (and, of course, they are always looking to create new organizational relationships). There, they help fill the organization’s internship slots with the students. If an internship does not exist within a given nonprofit, Brozek offers to “build” the program and take care of what happens behind the scenes so that the student can have the chance to work at their preferred organization.  

This summer, senior Ashley Tang interned in Milwaukee at a nonprofit called TRUE Skool with a focus on water conservation through projects in aquaponics and hydroponics. Tang oversaw how the grant that funded their work was implemented; much of her role involved helping decide how the money was spent. Through being in charge of the financial activities, she was able to research how financial management can help organizations reach their goals.

While the aforementioned experience was a good takeaway, she thought the most rewarding part of the internship was being able to be around other young people working toward a common environmental-oriented goal separated from a purely academic setting. As an environmental science major herself, she said that she does not always get the opportunity to do that outside of the classroom, and that it was refreshing to be able to enjoy that experience.  

Elsewhere in the city, fifth-year Samantha Correra Gomez and senior Ellen Teerink were spending their summer working for Groundwork Milwaukee, a nonprofit focused on bringing about increased food equity and food sovereignty through different sustainability projects. 

Correra Gomez and Teerink focused on helping sustain several different community gardens. Their work included (but was not limited to) weeding and water monitoring alongside teenage helpers from Milwaukee area high schools. While their internship focused heavily on the gardens, it also allowed them a chance to connect with the younger workers through a canoeing excursion down the Milwaukee River and a trip to Discovery World, a local hands-on science museum. Both agreed that getting to work with the high schoolers was one of their favorite parts of the internship. 

Correra Gomez also enjoyed getting to know each garden and working with its unique needs to keep it flourishing. Teerink found the most meaning in getting to “break a sweat” outside and getting to look back at all the progress she and her team made along the way. Both recommended the nonprofit to future SEJ Internship Cohort students, and each had a word of advice: pick an internship where you can get outdoors and keep active.  

Back in Appleton, junior Emma Vasconez was hard at work with World Relief Fox Valley, a refugee resettlement nonprofit agency offering both short- and long-term services. Vasconez was not restricted to one type of job; she took part in several different activities, including creating a postcard for World Relief’s donors, condensing a wordy PowerPoint about how to budget in the United States into a simpler packet, helping furnish new apartments for refugees and transporting them from the airport and to medical screenings. 

She found it incredibly meaningful to work with her clients, especially as an international relations and government major. There were points where she found herself frustrated with the way some US systems operate for refugees, especially those relating to employment, housing and social security, but was happy she was able to make a difference for them. Vasconez wished to see the internship cohort further “highlighted” so that more others could have the same opportunity she did.  

All four of them said that housing was the biggest problem they encountered, as this was the first time they had been independently in charge of finding housing and settling in on their own. Brozek agreed that it was one of the biggest hurdles students reported having to jump over. As a relatively new program, however, he was still proud of how well things went this summer.  

The reflection posters made by this year’s SEJ Internship Cohort will be displayed later this term in Warch for public viewing. Students are encouraged to check out the posters, and perhaps even take inspiration from them and consider joining the SEJ Internship Cohort in a future summer.