Abby May graduated from the communications program at University of Lynchburg as part of the Class of 2019.
Ten years ago, that degree might have been enough. But in an increasingly competitive job market, graduates need more than a bachelor’s degree to keep their head above water. Internships have become a crucial component of the college experience, providing professional experience and hirability with low cost to the employer.
While seeking more experience outside of the classroom, last summer May stumbled across the Meals on Wheels of Greater Lynchburg internship.
May said it was a “perfect fit.”
It gave May hands-on skills she could put on her resume: writing press releases, running social media accounts and working in a professional environment.
“It was one of the best experiences I had in college,” May said. “Nonprofits are so thankful, especially in a smaller town like Lynchburg. The one thing that they need is our help.”
Lynchburg is rich with nonprofits — about 500 are registered and active in the Lynchburg area — and the numbers are on the rise.
According to those involved with the organizations, the large pool of college students available to intern is a contributing factor.
“I believe having the resource of college students is an asset to the community and our local nonprofits,” said Kris Shabestar, executive director of Meals on Wheels of Greater Lynchburg. “When young adults can see the impact of their work in a concrete and effective manner, it will be carried with them long after their internship and graduation — building philanthropy for years to come.”
Shabestar said after 45 years, Meals on Wheels is serving more people than it ever has before — 350 people every day on 27 routes that go through Lynchburg and surrounding counties.
Facing a growing demand as a small nonprofit with minimal overhead, Shabestar said the organization needed help. That is where the interns come in. Utilizing the “natural resource” of interns in the community has been a vital change in recent years, she said.
“I don’t need someone to do busywork,” Shabestar said. “I do need someone with new ideas.”
Becky Tweedy, communications director for Meals on Wheels of Greater Lynchburg, said interns provide a fresh perspective, creativity and a renewed desire to create an impact.
“We love what we do,” Tweedy said. “But it’s exciting to hear interns say they were moved beyond words delivering meals on a route. I think what we do reaches them as well.”
Sal Ferlise, CEO of Sports Outreach, a Lynchburg-based nonprofit sports ministry, said the organization has been using interns for 30 years.
“We have had interns play an important role in our mission from the beginning,” Ferlise said. “Interns have assisted across all areas of the mission.”
Over the years they have had hundreds of interns, both assisting administratively and in the field, coaching and creating programs.
Ferlise told his favorite story about an intern, David, who went from a semester internship to becoming a lifelong donor for the organization.
“The end result is when you value a person, they in turn value you,” Ferlise said. “The worst thing we could do is look at interns as a commodity and not as a value exchange. We have a responsibility to share our gifts, our values, our mentorship. If you do that, you end up win-win.”
Scott Robert, assistant director of Career Development and Internships at University of Lynchburg, helps to build relationships between students and for-profit and nonprofit employers in Lynchburg. His department hosts events, workshop seminars and networking events to connect interns with prospective organizations.
Robert said the university deals heavily with nonprofits and the number of interns employed by nonprofits has been increasing over the past several years.
“As an institution, we have taken it to heart that students want to give back to the community,” Robert said. “A good way to do that is to work with nonprofits.”
On any given academic year, well over half of the graduating class are doing internships, Robert estimated. One of the university’s goals in the coming years is for all students to be doing experiential education — a teaching philosophy that encourages students to get out of the classroom and pursue opportunities within the community.
Robert said he recognizes the symbiotic relationship between nonprofits and interns.
“It gives a sense of community to both the students and the people who live here,” Robert said. “We might keep students here because they become familiar with nonprofits.”
James Roux, professor of communication studies with University of Lynchburg and director of the nonprofit leadership masters program, helps to coordinate internships for communications students.
“Nonprofits are growing across the country,” Roux said. “Nonprofits need assistance, students need experience ... it’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Dawn Wise, director of community engagement for United Way of Central Virginia, said United Way has been using interns for at least five years. They only take one a semester, usually from Liberty or UL, so they can devote time and training necessary to create an essential member of the team.
The intern works about 20 hours a week, they get a computer, laptop and office space, and they are encouraged to take on a big project — like the October Food Drive or May’s Day of Caring.
Interns are in charge of the whole thing, Wise said. They will hold press conferences, reach out to media and — in the food drive’s case — help to raise 10,000 pounds of food in a month for 12 local pantries and food banks.
Wise said interns are integral to nonprofits. Wise said she sees interns on the rise as the job market gets even more competitive, experience and internships help give an employable college-grad’s an extra edge.
Since interns get class credit for their work, Wise said they get no payment but experience. This allows every spare dollar at the nonprofit to go toward its programming.
“We’re all about money, and that money we have is very limited,” Wise said. When they are able to hire a highly-qualified, energetic intern, “that’s money you can save for your clientele and the people you are serving.”
Most importantly, Wise said interns create a trickle-down-effect.
“You’re creating a champion for your nonprofit,” Wise said. “A passionate intern is going to go out there and do similar work.”
Wise said she still is in contact with Bianca, the first intern she worked with during her five years at United Way. Bianca was a summer intern, before United Way had an intern office and other amenities. Wise said Bianca worked from her couch, embedding herself in data collection and helping the community.
Though Bianca was born and raised just down the street, she was unaware of the 10,000 food-insecure children in Central Virginia.
Wise said after Bianca graduated and left United Way, she changed her entire career path and went on to join AmeriCorps.
“Bianca is out there saving the world now,” Wise said. “Based on a summer spent crunching data on my couch.”
Reach Sarah Honosky at (434) 385-5556.