Getting high school students into the workforce has proven difficult during the pandemic. A Pew Research Center study found that teenage employment in the summer of 2020 hit its lowest level in more than a decade — only about 30.8% of U.S. teens had a paying job.
Locally, a new initiative from the University of Chicago may make a small dent in that number. This year, the school launched its Youth Internship Program: a six-week placement in which students were paid a $2,500 stipend for 20-hour workweeks.
The program, created through the Office of Civic Engagement, hosted 10 student interns from four local high schools.
One of those interns was Dejiah Beatty, a Kenwood Academy student from Fernwood, who worked in science communications at the U. of C.’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. Beatty collected data on the public’s understanding of molecular engineering, analyzed it, developed an interview protocol and carried out interviews with members of the public.
“My experience was once in a lifetime,” said Beatty. “There were so many different resources and I learned so many things that I didn’t know existed.”
Beatty hopes to become a neonatal surgeon one day, and was previously involved in the project “Lead the Way” at Kenwood Academy, a hands-on and problem-solving curriculum in engineering and biomedicine.
Since molecular engineering is a new field that doesn’t get much attention, Beatty found a lot of misperceptions in the public’s understanding, said Laura Rico-Beck, Beatty’s supervisor of the internship program and assistant dean of education and outreach at University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.
“She’s tremendously mature and she has this attitude of, ‘Yeah, I can do this,’ ” said Rico-Beck. “She was able to do it and realize how she can ask for support and resources along the way.”
The internship program was created by the Office of Civic Engagement based off a recommendation from the Community Development Working Group, made up of 60 local stakeholders who have been convening since 2019.
According to Alyssa Berman-Cutler, executive director of community development, stakeholders had experience in business, housing and real estate, and workforce and employment. As the community group was coming up with recommendations for the U. of C., internships for students were high on the list.
“One thing I was conscious of was making sure that each intern had a good experience and making sure that each intern was working with supervisors to make sure that they were useful,” said Berman-Cutler.
Berman-Cutler said the program tried to create opportunities across different units, helping interns get involved in everything from commercial real estate research to podcast-making.
The U. of C. intends to expand the program from 10 interns to 30 by next year.