First year of diversity internship program finds success for students, employers

Isaac Gonzalez used software that he learned in his engineering courses to solve a problem in a manufacturing plant. Alex Valle learned business and email etiquette on the job, aspects of business that weren’t covered in his coursework. And Naomi Chang found out about jobs in the communication field that could be career options for a marketing major.

These work experiences are the kind that brought 56 UWM students closer to identifying and starting their careers through an internship program designed to address the need to widen and diversify the talent pipeline in Southeastern Wisconsin and provide meaningful professional experiences to UWM undergraduates.

The UWM Student Success & Talent Pipeline Initiative (SSTPI) is a partnership among the MMAC, the Department of Workforce Development, UWM and local organizations, including the university, that have signed the Region of Choice Pledge. The pledge is a commitment by companies and other organizations to add more employees who are Black, Indigenous and other people of color to their workforces.

Giving another reason to stay in area

In February 2023, another 43 students are expected to be placed in paid internships through the program, which is made possible through a $500,000 grant provided by the Department of Workforce Development.

Naomi Chang interned at Athena Communications, a public relations and brand management firm. (Courtesy of Naomi Chang)

“What we hope is that the people and opportunities at these companies become a reason for young BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) talent to stay in Southeastern Wisconsin,” said Laurie Marks, executive director of the Center for Student Experience and Talent at UWM.

That is essential for local companies in Wisconsin, among the top states where college graduates leave to take jobs in other states. Engineering student Gonzalez worked on a team at Molson Coors that applies new technology to a brewery setting.

Gonzalez said he also is proud of a tool he designed and built during his internship, using 3D printing modeling software. The device makes cleaning a piece of equipment on the manufacturing floor much quicker and easier.

“The operators tested it out, and they were impressed,” Gonzalez said. “I’m happy I could make their lives easier. That’s a great feeling – to make something that works and solves a problem.”

Finding and developing young talent

Identifying and recruiting BIPOC students is one of the university’s contributions to the initiative, Marks said. As a result of her office joining forces with the campus multicultural centers, 83% of the first round of SSTPI applicants were BIPOC students.

Alex Valle, a December graduate of the Lubar School of Business, discovered his first career experience in the purchasing department at Froedtert Hospital. His internship led to a job offer. (Courtesy of Alex Valle)

Students hired as SSTPI interns also receive “wrap-around services,” she said, such as a pairing with both a campus success coach and a workplace mentor. Those two assets were very helpful to Valle. A senior during his internship, his campus coach came from the Roberto Hernandez Center.

“My coach has a Hispanic background, so she understood me more than someone who isn’t,” said Valle, who worked at Froedtert Hospital as a purchasing assistant. “In fact, I felt more connected with her than to my regular (academic) advisor.”

The success coaches serve a variety of roles: helping students choose which positions to apply to, prepare their resumes and learn what to expect in a job interview – all the things you need to secure an internship, Marks said.

The student interns also complete a UWM course designed to help them feel more confident in articulating their skill sets to employers.

“We ask them reflective questions that get them to see how what they’ve accomplished in their courses has enhanced their problem-solving skills or taught them to be good team members,” Marks said.

Exploring career options with any degree

Another unique component of this program, she said, is that it encourages companies to offer learning pathways for student interns regardless of their majors.

“For example, you could see a communications major as someone who could serve in an HR internship,” she said. “People often go into a field that is unrelated to what they went to college for.”

Naomi Chang, a sophomore marketing student, interned with Athena Communications, a smaller public relations and brand management firm.

“I was able to see how the company creates their website using different platforms,” Chang said. “Also, I’ve created some social media content for their clients. This has helped me understand what a career in the broader field of communications is like. It’s something I may not have considered before.”

Making program sustainable

Valle also never thought he would use his business degree in supply chain or purchasing. “Supply chain wasn’t something I was all that familiar with, but it’s definitely something I’m enjoying since my internship.”

The grant money will expire once 100 interns have been placed with companies, said Marks, but UWM is exploring how to make the program sustainable.

“Our hope is that, in the 2.0 version of this, the role of the university will continue to be recruiting BIPOC students for internships at Milwaukee companies. And we will continue providing students with support services,” she said. “What we’re hoping is that there’s enough value to the companies that we can explore a model where they are willing to cover costs not only on the talent, but also some support for administration of the program as well.”

Meanwhile, Gonzalez and Valle, both of whom just graduated, illustrate the potential of the SSTPI program: Internships turned into job offers.

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