Internships: Stepping Up to Stepping Stones

My hands shook holding the paper copy of my short speech that I had finished and printed only 15 minutes earlier. I had never been a public speaker, enchanting a crowd with charismatic turns of phrase was the duty of greater people than me. However, there I was: 21 years old, shaking visibly, standing at a podium in front of 700 people all looking back at me, waiting for me to give my short speech and introduce Dr. Walter Ziffer, Holocaust survivor and keynote speaker. At that moment, I wanted nothing more than for the floor to collapse, taking me and my fear with it and letting Dr. Ziffer introduce himself. Heck, I thought, he’d do a better job anyway. Then I made eye contact with my supervisor, Dr. Richard Chess, who met my gaze with kind eyes and an encouraging smile from his front row seat. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and spoke.

In my 25 years of life, I’ve had many experiences that challenged me to build new skills, face my fears, and develop as a person. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have many of those experiences within the bounds of an internship, both in undergraduate and now in my graduate school experience. At 20, I became an intern for the UNC Asheville Center for Jewish Studies, where I ran the Jewish student organization Hillel, held Shabbat dinners for community in my home, and planned events for the school and wider Asheville community. Yes, those events that drew 700+ people and made Sophomore-me quake in my boots.

When I was 21, I was taken on as an intern for the UNC-Asheville Africana Studies Department. Through this work, I grew to know my supervisor and college advisor, Dr. Agya Boakye-Boaten, who remains to this day one of my closest mentors. Over two years, “Dr. B” and I built an academic journal for Africana Studies, journeyed to Ghana to travel down dirt roads and wander through Asante cities to learn about education systems, and wrote papers on the Ebola crisis in Liberia. These experiences forced me to build organizational systems, build social capital with important professors, and be more comfortable with leaping into foreign situations by learning how to navigate and swim on the way. Trust me, these were not innate skills of mine, but instead were fomented by experience after experience that pushed me out of my comfort zone.

This past summer, during summer break in my graduate school program, I was ecstatic to be a part of the State Innovation Exchange (SiX) team. With SiX, I honed research skills, building a legislative library of progressive bills and acts on the state level throughout the nation between 2014-current day. Although a millennial, I have never been a technologically advanced individual and was feeling very intimidated by the mandates of my project. Yet, over the summer months, that library grew to nearly 400 entries and I grew to be confident of my data hunting skills.

I have grown into a competent professional because of the opportunities I’ve had, the people I’ve met, and yes – the internships that pushed me beyond my comfort zones and provided once in a lifetime moments. On this day, I sit in my cubicle at the Institute for Emerging Issues offices, nose to the pages of books and the screens of computers, utilizing those hunting skills to research NC economic issues. When joining new communities, especially ones unlike my own, I open my heart and my ears to listen first before speaking. And, most importantly, I stand tall at the front of meetings, events, and conferences as I read my speeches. Before I begin, I close my eyes, remember that moment of fear in Lipinsky and all of the moments of growth since then. I take a deep breath, and I speak.

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Allison Plitman is an intern at the Institute for Emerging Issues at NC State University.

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