Our Intern Associates program is a new form of experiential learning and collaboration that enables high-potential undergraduate and graduate students to build rigorous skills and repeatable practices through real-life, real-time projects sponsored by senior leaders around the globe. By fostering innovative and practical approaches to work that are especially suited for flexibility and sustainability, the program positions the next generation to contribute to our shared civic life and systematically create a network effect for good.
The program recruits and readies promising undergraduate and graduate student leaders, many of whom are at loose ends as universities go online and in-person internships vanish because of the 2020 pandemic.
Rapidly, the program trains these young people in leading-edge disciplines including design thinking, organizational behavior, systems thinking, stakeholder feedback, and complexity—all undergirded with an immersion in diverse community needs and remote social learning.
Students then organize into overlapping project teams addressing pressing real-life issues facing our society, economy, and environment. Challenges range from responding to pandemics and global warming, to bridging the digital divide and lifting up arts to transform culture, to addressing systemic racism and overcoming health inequities. Success requires modern skills and fresh perspectives, all embedded in networked and distributed organizational forms.
Teams work (virtually) alongside senior leaders who have insight, influence, and expertise, providing the historical context and practical skills needed to be effective in a complex changing world. By nature and urgency of the work, time spent is intense, high impact, and paced in short interlaced loops.
As projects progress, teams refine their situational understanding, interview those most affected by the work to gain empathy and uncover previously unspoken complications, continually iterating their solutions.
Along the way, cohort members repeatedly pitch their work to improve their frameworks and refine their communication skills. Building on their academic studies and personal interests, some may take on additional loops with statistical modeling, data analysis, visual design, technical development, or policy briefs.
Because of their cross-training and common vernacular, teams can be reshuffled and deployed to address emergent problems on short notice.
The program is born of the COVID-19 disruption and structured for success, both professional and personal, in a remote-first reality. Throughout, young leaders work closely with bright, motivated peers, fostering a sense of comradery and belonging to go with a shared purpose. The deliberate collaborative structure ensures they remain focused and energized in a confusing world that needs their help to create a healthy future.
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The inter-disciplinary skills required to mobilize complex change are hard to teach in traditional siloed academic environments. This has become more apparent as colleges and universities face increasing stresses related to cost, access, and effectiveness in equipping students for thriving lives and careers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated pressure on higher education, resulting in a proactive shift to fully online classes and large numbers of students deferring enrollment.
These factors are resulting in large numbers of high-potential students who are poorly engaged in learning the practical, hands-on skills required to be effective agents of change. Our program puts these students to work.
Instead of a typical internship model, where most work is apprenticeship-based and often has little lasting impact, in a time when understanding and creating change is vital, the program’s projects are designed by senior sponsors to focus on real-world problems in a context where the teams have practical and oftentimes pivotal value in addressing complex challenges.
The goal is to demonstrate how the program can unleash the idle potential of the most promising undergrad and graduate students in a way that demonstrates new forms of experiential education that both engages students and develops the leadership skills they will need for the 21st century.
Key among the design elements of the program is showing how equitably engaging diverse and inclusive teams is not only the right thing to do morally and ethically, but also the smart thing to do for liberating the skills and perspectives needed to solve society’s most difficult challenges.
We are driven to focus and act now by the urgency of the moment. There isn’t time to hold back even if we wanted to.
How can you help?
The program was alpha tested during Summer 2020 with 10 scholars, then beta-tested during Fall 2020, with plans to grow in 2021. We will be recruiting and training two teams of 4-5 students, matching them with senior sponsors on projects that reflect the complex challenges facing society, the economy, and the environment.
In parallel, we are deepening our conversation with universities, senior leaders in key fields, and foundations about how this program could be scalable, impactful, and financially sustainable.
We continue to seek systems-changing projects, funding, and sharing with others who may be interested in helping out.
A bit of background
The roots of the program began in June 2020 when we realized that many of the most promising students in higher education had lost their summer internships because of COVID-19. Within two weeks, we assembled a team of interns from UNC-Chapel Hill, Dartmouth, Emory, King’s College (London), and the University of Virginia.
We began meeting with them online each morning for check-ins and providing pilot training in disciplines that the Normal>Next principals had experience in and knew to be transformative: design thinking, organization behavior, closed-loop feedback, and more.
Students then self-organized into teams to work on projects that the principals had been asked to do on issues ranging from COVID-19 response by foundations to engaging virtual cohorts of local leaders focused on health equity, to conducting oral interviews and creating the design concept for a new type of music museum that would bring a community together by showing how blues, jazz, and rock derive from and benefit from one another.
Three things stood out from our first experience:
- Student teams were able to actually advance the agenda on three important initiatives;
- They achieved this in eight weeks;
- They acquired a set of core skills that allows them to be redeployed (or redeploy themselves) in a self-organizing way on future initiatives without heavy additional training.
We are seeking funding to formalize the design, try out a 3-month work period, and seek input and support from additional senior leaders and foundations as we prepare to widen our reach.
This project focuses on students who are still in school (even if on leave) and does not place them in organizations, rather focuses them on specific projects on teams for defined periods of time, working remotely, together.
Leadership team credentials
Our 5-person founding team has deep experience in addressing complex challenges and launching initiatives that have gone to scale.
We have created and operated several systems-changing platforms (both within large organizations and as separate startups) in a wide variety of sectors including crowdfunding, feedback, enterprise technology, educational technology, publishing, and lifelong learning.
Our team members have taught at the secondary school, university, and corporate levels, and one has been a dean and academic administrator, as well as having long experience in educational policy.
We bring extensive experience in design thinking, entrepreneurship, organizational behavior, innovation, strategy, economics, law, public policy, creation of communities of practice, and technology. We have worked in the private sector, public sector, and the nonprofit world.
Endorsements from past participants
External project sponsors were enthusiastic about the results of the summer program. Two of them have asked for additional help on other projects, and several other senior people have asked if we would consider doing a project for them going forward. One project sponsor said, “This team saved us 3 years of work if we had done it ourselves.”
The evaluation by students was also extremely positive. They contrasted this experience with previous internships, where they felt they did a lot of “make work” that was not central to the host organization’s work. One student said, “I learned and did more in my first two weeks here than in my other internships combined.” All were proud of what they achieved in terms of making a substantial difference in a real project affecting society.
As universities go online fully or partly, we are already seeing students who are taking time off and who are looking for non-university-based educational opportunities.
We will publicize the results of this through formal and informal discussions with stakeholders and by publishing in appropriate academic, corporate, and media outlets, both specialized and general.
We actively seek several students interested in front-line journalism to document the process and the work that teams are doing in a modern format that others can learn from over time.
Long term goals
The goal is to learn whether it is possible to:
– scale and sustain a new type of experiential education program that
– delivers high-quality work based on real-life problems
– to senior leaders
– in a manner that achieves real progress against key societal challenges
– such that the most promising students, of all backgrounds, perceive this as a sought-after opportunity
– to advance both their formal education and their careers
– and demonstrates that putting equity, diversity, and inclusion at the heart of our work is key to success.
Indicators of progress
Do the students perceive this as an experience that is substantially better than existing leadership and internship programs? (survey)
Do project sponsors perceive the work as high value and responsive? (interviews)
Can we convince other stakeholders that the program is worth continuing through participation and funding? (interviews, additional funding interest or commitments)
Read the full Job Description.
For consideration, please submit a resume and cover letter, including additional details and your timeframe to firstname.lastname@example.org.
At this time we are pausing our recruitment of new interns for the summer of 2021. Please feel free to send your resume & cover letter in the meantime and you will be on the contact list when we announce the resumption of the Normal Next internship program in the future.