400 Interns and Counting – Working with Interns at The Garden Classroom
Long ago, before the time of higher education, SAT’s and grueling college applications, we would instead dedicate ourselves to a mentor. Apprenticeships took the place of school, giving us a career path guided by another person skilled in the trade that we chose to follow. Todays apprenticeship type experiences often take the form of what we refer to as internships.
A recent study of American universities conducted by U.S. News reports that “Highly ranked schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University claim to have 90 and 75 percent of students completing internships before graduating, respectively. The University of Pittsburgh, a public university that awarded more than 3,800 bachelor's degrees in the 2008-09 academic years, reported that 72 percent of those students worked as interns before graduating. “
If you are running a school garden or other type of educational program recruiting interns for specific projects may be a very beneficial endeavor for both you and the intern.
Here at Life Lab, we have conducted a small survey of our own, hoping to gather information on the impact an internship can hold for our interns. The ripple effect of what started here at The Garden Classroom is astounding when we look at the results of our post intern surveys.
Since 2001 we have trained over 400 interns. The number of interns we rely upon each year has more than doubled so we feel fortunate to have a large pool to draw on. Most start out by simply leading groups of children around the garden, but some end up conducting their senior exit projects with us, creating outstanding and valuable tools such as the California Statewide School Garden Survey, educational videos, and a multitude of interpretive onsite signage projects. Many of them have gone on to spread the Life Lab love and work at other programs, create their own programs, or bring more environmental education into their diverse professions. We help to create the values for future good work.
When asked how our internship shaped future career plans, we received a multitude of answers, indicating the depth of Life Lab’s reach. One person decided to apply for the Teacher Credential Program at San Jose State University, while another person went on to graduate from the same program and now teaches science full time, combining their experience with environmental studies and education.
Lindsay Colombero, a Spring 2006 intern, writes,
“I'm actually a masters of education student at University of Washington, doing my thesis project on the importance of outdoor and garden curriculum. Life Lab was my inspiration! Before UW, I worked and studied at Island Wood on Bainbridge Island, WA and my experience with Life Lab got me that position – thanks!!!!“
Another past intern had this to say,
“After my internship I taught outdoor education at a camp for fifth grade classes. I ended up as the Life Lab garden coordinator at Live Oak Elementary School… I loved it so much I went into teaching and am now a Waldorf Teacher at a Charter school teaching third grade where the curriculum is focused on farming. I use my Life Lab training and experience almost every day of my life.”
For anyone, a job experience can shape who you are and who you become. Some of the people that end up working with us, regardless of the brevity of an internship, find themselves changed by the time spent.
Here is one example of this positive impact,
“As a result of being an intern at Life Lab, the world of organic agriculture and sustainable food systems opened up for me. Coming from a cattle-ranching family in Kansas, I was very familiar with conventional agriculture, but had no idea what the word "organic" even meant until I began working at Life Lab. Now I have a completely different perspective on the food that I eat and try to share my knowledge with others, even my reluctant family members.”
Most of the interns that responded to our survey were eager to share their experiences about their time with us, and many had great insight about how Life Lab measures up in the wide world of environmental education.
“This program really integrates so many things. It not only teaches elementary students about ecology and where their food comes from, but also helps college students get hands-on teaching experience. I have seen quite a few similar programs now, and nothing quite compares. Thank you for all your hard work and enthusiasm!”
• Connect with a local college or university. Seek out departments related to your work, and talk to their internship coordinators (or faculty) about the internship needs of their students. Here at the Garden Classroom, the majority of our interns come from the Environmental Studies Department at UCSC; we have also had interns from Cabrillo College, from the Horticulture Department and Early Childhood Education Department, and from a few more distant schools. All of these students were required to complete internships, so we build our internships around their departments' requirements (length of commitment, number of hours per week, any project requirements).
• Although not exactly an internship, the Federal Workstudy Program provides low cost student employees available to work a non-profit organizations and schools. Check with your local college or university to see if they place workstudy students in your area.
• Divide your year into "seasons" that correlate with the students' semesters or quarters. Conduct intern training at the beginning of each season (semester/quarter), and celebrate your last week with interns the week before finals begin.
• If you are working with community volunteers only, it is still a good idea to have set times of the year that training takes place, so that you are not constantly spending time training new interns.
• Clearly outline the job description, hours, and work routine for your interns, and use this information for recruiting and training interns. If needed, create two or more distinct job descriptions for different types of interns (i.e., education interns vs. gardening interns), including previous experience required, if any.
• Decide how you will fill your intern spots– will it be first-come, first-served, or will you interview applicants? How many interns do you need? Consider adding a small stipend to attract a larger applicant pool.
• Create a training manual for your interns, with plenty of good background info and tips for doing the work successfully. For example, our intern training manual has information about our garden & farm, organic farming in general, and lots of tips for teaching successfully in an outdoor setting.
• When considering tasks for your interns, make sure they get some knowledge, skill, or other valuable experience out of what they are doing. For example, weeding all day is not a good choice for an intern, at least not one who is working without pay. However, weeding an area, building a raised bed there, and helping install irrigation is a great set of tasks for an intern who will come away with new abilities.
• When working with interns on a steady basis, expect to spend time also giving job references and writing letters of recommendation for past interns.
• Set up a regular time each day your interns are there to check in with them and find out how things went that day, to give them feedback, and ask how they are feeling about their progress (for example, ask them to share with the group, "What's one thing you're happy to have accomplished in your teaching? What's something you want to continue to work on?"). Plan to provide supervision and direction throughout the project.
• When you give feedback to interns, begin and end with specific positives, and in the middle give your suggestion(s) for improvement, perhaps in such terms as "What if next time you try this…?"
• Invite interns to also share their suggestions for improvement of your program.
• Provide enriching experiences for your interns on a regular basis. Bring in an interesting article to discuss, a new game/skill to teach them, a quote, or a new food to try– whatever relates to your work.
• Be informed about other options for jobs or other internships in your field, so you have good suggestions for interns who ask about where they might go next.
• Consider an occasional field trip with your interns to a related place or like-minded organization. For example, we take our interns to work and observe in a school garden for a day.
• If an intern will be taking on a project other than their usual daily tasks, set up a weekly check-in time and a timeline for completion of the project, to keep it on track.
We have a mutual beneficial relationship with our university interns. Our programs wouldn’t be what they are without them. These words from a past intern sum up how she felt about her experience:
“Life Lab is like a secret treasure chest on campus full of knowledge, beauty, and silly kids and chickens. When you find it, you feel like it's only yours but then you see what a wonderful extended community you just stumbled into and it alone is worth the price of tuition, if you have to put a price on it.”