Virtual Internship Opens New Doors

This summer, the Youth Employment Program connected its first virtual intern with remote employer Outer Coast

In a typical year, interns like Russell Rivera work on-site with local employers. This year, when faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, Youth Employment Program connected its first virtual intern with a remote employer.

Every summer, dozens of young people flood the Nat’uh Service Center and CITC’s Youth Services building to learn how to be good employees. A one-day conference kicks off their ten-week internships, during which each of them works on-site with a local employer.

For many of these young people, this is their first professional job experience. They spend the summer learning to show up for work on time, collaborate with colleagues, dress in a workplace-appropriate manner, and conduct themselves like professionals. At the end of ten weeks, Youth Services hosts a wrap-up event, where interns can share what they learned on the job and celebrate a successful summer. There’s food, conversation, presentations, and great guest speakers, like Alaska’s Ninja Warrior Nick Hanson, who inspired Youth Employment Program (YEP) interns last summer.

This year, the YEP summer internship looked…a little different.

It was Kira Fagerstrom’s first year as a YEP intern. She spent her summer working for Outer Coast, a private liberal arts college in Sitka.

Interns celebrated a successful summer internship in 2018 with guest speaker Nick Hanson, the Alaska Ninja Warrior.

“At the beginning of March, when Outer Coast contacted me, I wasn’t sure what would happen,” Kira recalled. “We were on lock-down, but I thought maybe I’d still be able to go to Sitka by summer.”

“The reason Kira’s internship worked out this year was because CITC was able to make a virtual internship happen,” explained Johnny Elliott, who coordinates logistics for Outer Coast.

While quarantine and “hunker down” orders due to COVID-19 made it difficult or impossible for many interns to work onsite with their employers, it was important for YEP to keep the program running somehow.

“The employers we work with still had businesses to run,” said Krystal Kompkoff, CITC Youth Services Manager. “They benefit from having subsidized employees, since many businesses had to close or reduce services during quarantine. Many of the youth we serve are low-income, and they need the internship, especially if other family members were laid off or received reduced hours due to COVID-19.”

While some employers who partner with YEP were unable to do so this summer because space issues prevented them from providing adequate social distancing for interns, others were able to create mitigation plans that met city and state safety requirements and continue hosting interns.

The YEP internship program often places young people in their first professional position.

Still others, like Outer Coast, were able to accommodate a remote intern using tools like Zoom and Google’s G Suite tools for working remotely.

Virtual internships opened up new opportunities for young people like Kira. While she already had access to a computer and the internet, YEP is able to provide interns assistance with purchasing a Chromebook or connecting to the internet.

Kira worked from her home in Wasilla, remotely collaborating with her colleagues as she wrote Outer Coast’s student handbook and helped create the organization’s COVID-19 policy.

She was able to use her own experience as a former Outer Coast student to inform the projects she worked on, said Johnny.

“We often wonder how students will react to something, or whether a policy is reasonable for students,” he said. “And having Kira there to not only answer those questions but to be the one to ask them and design policy in the first place was just immensely valuable to our team.”

One key element of the YEP internship is the support YEP staff provides for these young workers. In a typical year, staff help interns create action plans that lay out their short- and long-term career goals and provide employability training. Throughout the summer, they meet regularly with interns and their employers to ensure objectives are being met and interns understand what is needed to be successful on the job. This year, those meetings happened virtually.

Based on the success of the program’s first virtual intern, the Youth Employment Program may offer additional virtual internships in the future.

“I thought YEP program staff would be more like a middle-man, but I was pleasantly surprised at how involved they were,” remarked Kira. “They made onboarding easy, went over employment practices, and showed me what it takes to be a good employee. It was really nice to have that system in place, with all these people who are experienced with applying to jobs and building a great resume.”

This fall, Kira traveled to Harvard to begin living on campus for her first year of college, but like a lot of students, she is currently attending her classes virtually — another thing her internship inadvertently prepared her for.

“I have high Zoom tolerance now,” she said. “I’m very fluent in the Google suite, which will be helpful for class. I think working virtually helped me be a little more productive. I’m super thankful to CITC for making my internship happen because it gave me something to do this summer. I hope CITC keeps offering virtual options — it really opens a lot of new doors.”

“As our first virtual intern, Kira was our test case,” Krystal added. “Now we know that if we have the right partner, with the right type of work, we can assist an employer with a remote intern.”

The YEP Internship Program offers internships year-round for Alaska Native/American Indian youth ages 14 to 24; priority of internships is given to low-income families, and placements depend on available funding. For more information, visit the YEP Internship Program page.