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If you feel like you are being given unfulfilling tasks on the job or that you aren’t getting enough help, tell your and push for something better.

Name: Michael Jefferson
Program of study: Sociology
Internship: Health Care for the Homeless
Location: Baltimore, MD

Briefly describe your internship and your responsibilities as an intern.
Work at Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) has been incredible, and I have been lucky to work under people who genuinely want me to learn and enjoy my experience on the job. For those who don’t know, HCH is a multifaceted organization that provides medical care and case management for people experiencing homelessness. The organization also advocates for better public policies on the behalf of some of Baltimore’s most vulnerable citizens.

To help me acclimate to the intense and sometimes-dangerous world of social work, my first few weeks with HCH were spent on outreach missions. Accompanied by outreach workers, I went to food pantries, homeless encampments, shelters, and projects to spread the word about resources that were available for Baltimore’s homeless citizens. I got to see first-hand the incredible challenges of poverty and hear survival stories from people living on the streets.

After becoming familiar with the issues at hand, I began my work with the advocacy team on two separate summer-long projects. The first project has been a sociological survey designed to learn more about the correlation between employment and homelessness. The second has been a photojournalistic documentary involving portraits of people experiencing homelessness and the landscapes they live in. I received a great deal of advice on both projects from members of HCH’s Consumer Advocacy Committee (most of whom are or were recently homeless). We intend to use both projects to educate public officials about how future services can be designed to best meet the needs of homeless citizens.

How did you find your internship?
Discovering my internship was an adventure in and of itself. Without a clear idea of what organizations were out there, I started to look for internship opportunities in Baltimore around the start of spring semester. At first, all I knew was that I wanted to work for a nonprofit with a progressive agenda for fighting poverty. I looked into various programs and shelters, but to my surprise, no one needed a full-time summer intern. It was close to the official internship registration deadline when I had a stroke of luck. As a member of an activist group on campus, I moderated a public discussion about homelessness between several homeless service providers. An AmeriCorps Vista happened to be present at the discussion, and thanks to her, I got in contact with Health Care for the Homeless. A few days later I went in for an interview, and they brought me aboard for the summer.

What resources did you find particularly helpful in your internship search?
I was lucky enough to find my internship by word of mouth, but if it hadn’t been for the people at the Career Development Office, I never would have made the official deadline and been able to register my internship for credit. They also helped me get a grant, which covered much of the cost of my rent here in Baltimore.

Why did you choose your internship? What factored into your search and applying?
I wanted a job that gave me a hands-on opportunity to learn from and work with poor and marginalized people in Baltimore. I have been attracted to issues of human rights since coming to Goucher, and I am very happy to have found an internship that provides me the opportunity to confront these issues and try to solve them.

What were you most apprehensive about going into your internship?
More than anything, I was actually afraid that I might get stuck doing dull office labor. I can think of several people who landed a really interesting-sounding internship with a great organization, and they ended up scanning copies and filing papers all day. I am very happy to say that my experience has been anything but dull, and I would take the job again in a heartbeat.

What did you hope to gain from your internship experience?
I wanted to see and feel the hardship of poverty so that I can eventually join the movement to minimize its impact and reach. Although I do not know exactly what career I want in life, I do know that I want something that makes me feel like I am making a positive difference in the world. Health Care for the Homeless has allowed me the opportunity to assess my strengths and weaknesses in a serious field, and I am happy to have gained this valuable perspective.

How did your internship experience influence your academic and career interests/goals/plans?
My internship afforded me the opportunity to speak with literally hundreds of people who live at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Their stories have helped to shape my world view, which will act as an intellectual reference point for the remainder of my academic career. My internship has also given me a great appreciation for sociological fieldwork. I loved going around the city with our survey and speaking with hundreds of people in shelters, food pantries, and on the streets. It was a wonderful opportunity to record an oral history of Baltimore and one that deserves much attention. I look forward to working on more sociological studies, especially if it entails travelling to new places and hearing people’s stories.

What were the most challenging aspects of your internship?
Doing outreach was definitely challenging, both physically and emotionally. All of the outreach workers I travelled with had seen violent episodes occur at many of the places we went to. Because of this, we had to be hyper-vigilant every time we went out. There was also the frustration of meeting people who needed help but who we couldn’t reach for one reason or another. Some had psychological problems and wouldn’t trust us, but others were tired of the many broken promises they had received from politicians over the years. For me, it was the atmosphere of extreme hopelessness that was hardest to face.

What were the most rewarding aspects of your internship?
On one occasion, I had the opportunity to help a client move into an apartment. He had lived in a tent behind a local Wal-Mart for two years, and he barely survived last winter’s terrible blizzard. During the storm his tent collapsed on him, nearly suffocating him in the night. With a bad back and cardiovascular problems, he was finally approved for Social Security Disability Insurance (providing him just enough to pay for rent). Several days after we helped him move, he brought us a big carrot cake to show his gratitude.

Any funny/embarrassing things happen during your internship?
There is one client at HCH that has a charming habit of giving everyone he meets nicknames. My supervisor got the royal title of King Tut (apparently because he wears suits), and for a little while I was named King Tut Jr. Other names include: Wonder Woman, Paul Bunyan, and The Roach Whisperer.

How do you feel your internship prepared you for the real world?
Considering the kinds of experiences I’ve had during my internship, I can hardly imagine that another job could do a better job of preparing me for the real world. When you hear people talking about their survival stories every day, you gain a new appreciation for life and what it means to do something valuable. This internship has shown me that not only am I capable of doing work that attempts to solve serious social problems, I wouldn’t feel fulfilled if I weren’t.

What advice would you give to students to help them make the most of their internship experience?
I was lucky to have a supervisor who wanted me to learn new things every step of the way, but I’m sure there are plenty of students who aren’t as fortunate. One of the great things about an academic internship is the requirement that students get sufficient guidance on the job and that no more than 25 percent of their day is spent doing clerical work. If you feel like you are being given unfulfilling tasks on the job or that you aren’t getting enough help, tell your supervisor he or she isn’t meeting the terms of your agreement and push for something better.

How do you utilize the skills you developed in your internship experience in your job now?
Well I don’t know what skills will stick with me when this summer has passed, but I do know that I will carry the many stories I heard with me for the rest of my life. I look forward to returning to my studies with a new sense of urgency and a greater desire to use my education to help people in need.

Michael Jefferson