Community internships equally benefit students, neighborhoods

Five University students are gaining vital work experience through the Southeast Como Improvement Association.

Barry Lytton

Even though the University of Minnesota’s main campus technically spans as far north as Eighth Street Southeast, many students extend their education into its surrounding neighborhood associations.

It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, said Ricardo McCurley, director of the Southeast Como Improvement Association — which currently employs five University students as interns.

While the students get to autonomously spearhead neighborhood programs, he said, SECIA benefits from their labor, and they play an integral role in the organization’s success.

“No. 1, they add a student voice,” McCurley said, adding that most of the neighborhood’s student residents live there for a couple of years without getting engaged. “So that [their] voice is there … we kind of artificially populate that.”

McCurley said interns work on a variety of projects, some low-level — like office work or labor-intensive tasks — or larger-scale endeavors, like writing grant proposals for SECIA.

The students, who have been sophomores, seniors and even graduate scholars in the past, have played a hand in all kinds of projects, he said.

This year, one of the association’s interns is scanning Southeast Como for flat roofing that can be readily equipped with green-friendly technology.

Another intern, urban studies senior Cody Olsen,  said his year and a half of SECIA work has run the gamut from helping write five grants to pitching in on summer gardening.

“You get a lot of hands-on experience dealing with issues in the community, issues that face the city — it’s something extremely important in my major,” he said.

Olsen said the internship has been a useful career move because it has provided him with pertinent experience and helped him clarify his future ambitions.

“My time at SECIA has really helped me understand what I do and I don’t want in a career,” he said.

Olsen is one of about 5,000 students and faculty members who are matched with nonprofit organizations in the University area through the school’s Community Service-Learning Center’s courses, said Laurel Hirt, the center’s coordinator.

Annalee Mason, another SECIA intern, said she has continued her relationship with the neighborhood group almost a year after her initial introduction to the association through a CSLC course.

Like Olsen, Mason said the internship has shaped her educational experience, helping veer her path of study to one that is more ecologically focused.

“It opened a lot of doors,” she said. “It opened my mind to the prospect of what else is out there and made me much more interested in environmental issues.”

Mason said she feels lucky to be working in a neighborhood coalition — a gratitude that she said is a testament to the program’s success.

“Ricardo does not take any help he can get for granted. He not only appreciates, but respects the interns,” she said “I don’t think I’ve ever been treated like a student.”