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Renewed Commitment: The Boston Foundation’s New Community College STEM Internships Initiative

Grants to four community colleges will support the expansion of existing STEM internship programs and seed the launch of new efforts to help level the playing field for community college students.

February 19, 2021

By Antoniya Marinova, Assistant Director, Education to Career

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a tight labor market made it difficult for Massachusetts employers to find new workers, especially in STEM industries. While the pandemic has slowed hiring, the long-term prognosis suggests another tight market ahead. That makes now a critical time to tap a ready, willing talent pool—thousands of Massachusetts community college students with potential to close the gap. 

Many community college students in our region are people of color. A high percentage come from low-income families, and are often the first in their family to attend college. What they lack are the professional networks and connections to access internships and other door-opening opportunities. But at a time when equity and diversity are paramount at many companies, these students remain vastly underrepresented in STEM internship programs, often getting less than 10 percent of internships matched through the Massachusetts Life Science Center, Clean Energy Center, and Mass Tech Collaborative. And while the Legislature appropriates $1 million annually for internships for state universities, no equivalent support exists for community colleges. The equity imperative for leveling the playing field is as powerful as the economic need to train a pool of workers who overwhelmingly stay and work in the region after college. 

Prompted by the economic need, our long standing interest in community colleges and the equity imperative, the Boston Foundation and its donor partners zeroed in on the importance of work-based learning opportunities, such as internships, to help community college students get their foot in the door. Our 2019 report, Uncovering Hidden Talent, highlighted the lack of internships for community college students, and has informed this effort. As part of this strategy, we are pleased to announce that the Boston Foundation has awarded grants to four local colleges: Bunker Hill Community College, Massasoit Community College, Middlesex Community College, and North Shore Community College, with the goal to connect more of their students with internships in STEM industries in Greater Boston.

Deval Patrick Award for Community Colleges
Over the span of nearly 18 months, through the 2021-2022 academic year, these grants will support the expansion of existing STEM internship programs and seed the launch of new efforts. Our hope is that, through intentional learning, connection, and cultivation, these efforts will collectively lay the groundwork for a system-building approach larger than the sum of its programmatic parts. Identifying creative strategies that can be scaled up or replicated—and uniting them into a larger effort to build a better, fairer system, will bring us closer to our vision of success: when community college students are no longer overlooked or considered less competitive for coveted internship opportunities.

The work of connecting students with more, and better, STEM internships has to start with dismantling barriers that stand in the way of community colleges and their students. The efforts at these four colleges are varied—in terms of what the work is, who leads it, and where it sits within the institution. But several common—and critical—themes emerge.

Internships have to pay.

Community college students face significant financial and logistical obstacles to taking on an internship. Most already work and cannot afford to leave paying jobs. They do not have the financial cushion to take on unpaid internships, even if those promise to lead to desirable post-graduation job offers. Transportation challenges often eliminate internships from consideration. Financial compensation for students is a paramount equity consideration and an important feasibility feature to any internship initiative. As a result, these grants seek to create paid internships in STEM. All four colleges propose employer-paid compensation as the first-choice scenario. In cases where this is difficult, such as for small or new businesses, not-for-profits, and civic organizations, students will receive stipends funded by grant resources. Bunker Hill and Massasoit are expanding their cost-share funds as a way to supplement wages for students at STEM internship sites unable to foot the full bill. These “cost-share” models are pooled funds supported through employer contributions and privately-raised philanthropic dollars, and have shown promise elsewhere as a sustainable solution to advancing opportunities for students. 

Adequate staff and faculty capacity matters.

Community colleges, already facing fiscal and capacity constraints, tend to be thinly staffed, especially in non-academic positions. Staff have little excess time to take on more responsibility, support more students, and engage more employers. Recognizing this reality, all four colleges are adding staff to focus on this work, leading student career services, employer engagement, and campus-wide coordination of efforts. Several colleges also plan to expand the role of faculty, as their involvement is also critical: Professors often have experience in industry, own relationships with current and prospective employers, teach internship courses, and supervise independent internship engagements. Bunker Hill, Massasoit, and Middlesex are engaging faculty to draft or revise curricula for internship courses and teach new capstone or bridge courses. Bunker Hill will also designate three faculty members, representing Science, Engineering, and IT, as Faculty Liaisons to serve as the primary faces of the STEM internship program. These faculty liaisons will oversee and coordinate the work, establish consistent procedures, coordinate with other faculty, staff and students, and build and strengthen relationships with external partners, including employers.

You can’t have internships without employers.

"Identifying creative strategies that can be scaled up or replicated [...] will bring us closer to our vision of success, when: community college students are no longer overlooked or considered less competitive for coveted internship opportunities."
Internship availability depends critically on engaging employers and building their trust in program quality and responsiveness. But managing relationships with employers is difficult and time-consuming work. Faced with limited resources, career services professionals often spend most of their time supporting students—with resumes, mock interviews, and career exploration—at the expense of employer outreach. To change this dynamic, the colleges are proposing a number of approaches. North Shore is designing a tiered system, in which in foundational coursework leads to week-long project-based micro-internships, which in turn lead to full internships. This scaffolding allows the college to meet the needs of both students, who may need more flexibility, and employers, who may have projects ripe for micro-internships, even if they are not ready to host longer-term or full-time interns. Meanwhile, Middlesex is undertaking an in-depth examination of regional STEM employers to better understand their needs and expectations for interns and to surface industries with promising career opportunities. As Middlesex is located in the same regional labor market as North Shore and Northern Essex, the three colleges will collaborate to learn from the research and lay the groundwork for a regional internship program with a shared employer engagement strategy.

Equity doesn’t just happen. It needs intentional attention and action.

These four colleges—and the community college sector as a whole—educate precisely the students currently left out of STEM career opportunities. Fully half of the students at the four colleges are students of color; about six in ten are women. Yet, without intentional focus on and supports for these students during recruitment and on the job, they may get edged out or find themselves floundering in an unsupportive workplace culture. In response, both Bunker Hill and Massasoit are revamping their employer orientations around an equity and cultural wealth framework to ensure that partners fully recognize the cultural assets of their interns and support them effectively and equitably. Bunker Hill plans to engage the college’s Institutional Research to analyze data on STEM internship participation, disaggregated by race, gender and STEM field, to continually surface and counteract equity gaps. North Shore is integrating the tiered internship model with the college’s mission-based commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and intentionally recruiting students underrepresented in STEM, such as students of color, English learners, and older adult students. Middlesex aims to pair at least 60% of newly created internships with underrepresented students; they will prioritize internship sites at employers who share the college’s equity commitment and have mentorship programs and other supports that help interns of color feel valued and accepted in the workplace. 

To take lasting root, this work must align with institutional strategic priorities and high-profile initiatives.

Across the four colleges, efforts to connect students with STEM internships are rooted in the institutions’ strategic plans and aligned with their organizational priorities. Massasoit, for example, seeks to transform its current patchwork of internship efforts into a cohesive, highly visible, and well-coordinated program, whose elements of work-based learning and increased community and employer engagement form key components of the college’s newly adopted Five-Year Strategic Plan. And at North Shore, the tiered internship model is grounded in the college’s DEI commitment and tied to other high-priority ongoing initiatives, such as their Title III-funded Pathways to Success initiative. Finally, all four colleges plan to use Handshake to facilitate student recruitment, document employer engagement, and track data on internship postings and placements. Handshake, a leading career services platform for higher education, was adopted by the community college sector last fall with joint support by the Boston Foundation and SkillWorks. By tying these programs closely to broader strategic initiatives, the colleges are investing in making them sustainable beyond the life of the grant.

We are excited to track and support these efforts over the next 18 months, as these colleges make a commitment to a talented, diverse group of students with the skills and drive to succeed. They deserve the opportunity.

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We are truly grateful for the consulting support provided by Nancy Snyder and Richard Kazis. Their careful research, detailed capacity assessment, and wise counsel during our learning journey and strategy development work was invaluable.