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Birmingham City students intern with industry giants in preparation for the future

Gabrielle Mallory is completing her internship at UAB Hospital. (Provided photo)

By Victoria Hollis

Birmingham Education Foundation

Gabrielle Mallory is completing her internship at UAB Hospital. (Provided photo)
Gabrielle Mallory is completing her internship at UAB Hospital. (Provided photo)

“We’re looking for Gabrielle Mallory,” Bob Shepard, Media Relations specialist at UAB Hospital, says for the third time. Bob and I are canvassing the hospital system, on the hunt for three needles in the largest haystack in the state of Alabama.

“She’s in one of the rooms on the left,” the receptionist says. Jackpot.

There she is: 18-year-old Mallory – a senior at Jackson-Olin High School – making beds on the cardiac wing of UAB Hospital. She’s laughing alongside her supervisor when we come into the room.

This, she explains, is part of her typical workday. She starts with the water pitchers, using the time during an otherwise rote task to check-in with patients on the floor, making sure they are comfortable, and retrieving supplies. With the help of staff, she checks vitals, restocks the prescription closet, prepares beds for the next round of patients.

One level up, fellow student Jamesea Miles is having a similar experience. For her, working in the hospital has helped her strengthen her communication skills and to appreciate their importance in this line of work.

“Conversation is key,” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about how to really interact with the patients. They like to talk a lot and get to know the people that are taking care of them. We make their stay a little easier on them because [being in a hospital] can be a really stressful time.”

A Community Effort

These moments in the hospital – and elsewhere – have been a long time coming. Last summer, the six-person program staff at the Birmingham Education Foundation (Ed) spread out across the city in board rooms and office buildings, sitting across a conference table or a desk, making the same ask to more than twenty different partners:

“Are you in?”

What we were talking about, of course, was Ed’s Executive Internship Program (EIP), a seed planted on our first site visit to UAB Hospital almost four years ago, the answer to the question we’d been asking ourselves since we first began partnering with the Birmingham City Career Academies in 2012: “How are we making a difference in the lives of kids in Birmingham City Schools?”

The answer, it has become clear, is the EIP: a competitive, paid, 120-hour internship at some of the most well-respected, diverse, and successful companies in Birmingham. Partners at giants like UAB Hospital, CTS, Daxko, the BJCC, and Brasfield & Gorrie; nonprofits like Teach For America, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, Redemptive Cycles, and the Southern Museum of Flight have come together to offer thirty-two of these coveted staff-mentored, on-the-job-learning positions in their offices. Internship hosts are recruited and selected to match the interests of students in the Academies – representing fields as varied as tourism and engineering and health sciences and education – and to match the visions of the people who drive the Academies’ efforts in our schools.

“The internships are the capstone of the Academy experience,” says Carver Academy coordinator Kristie Williams. “The students love it and it has been a joy for me seeing the excitement in their eyes and to hear their ‘guess what I did today!’ stories. This kind of collaboration for our students is what education is all about.”

In November, thirty-six seniors from six Birmingham City high schools gathered at the Harbert Center to interview for the coveted spots. Coming at the tail end of a three-year career-exploratory sequence, many of the interviewees and interviewers had known each other for years. In 10th and 11th grade, students visited their offices and headquarters for tours, scavenger hunts, and job-shadowing, all in pursuit of expanding students’ knowledge of the many different careers that support their bottom lines. In some cases, this made interviews easier, more relaxed, and in some cases, it made the decisions all the more difficult.

“It’s so hard to choose,” said Rebecca Brown, Human Resources Director at Brasfield & Gorrie. “I want to hire them all.”

Prior to the interview fair, applicants were pre-screened and selected by Ed staff and, at the end of the day, both sides ranked their preferences. Ed staff then matched students and partners to ensure the best possible fit. Starting in January, participating students kicked off the new year with a one-day orientation held at Innovation Depot’s iLab, completing W-2s, finalizing schedules, and establishing check-in procedures – the last pieces in the puzzle of their new jobs. Over the next couple days and weeks, our thirty-two interns went to work just like everybody else.

Two-Way Street

On the north side of the city, in the back of a renovated historic building, Jeremy Copeland has us all in stitches. When asked what a typical day looks like, the Parker High School senior smirks and says, “Every day is so different, sometimes I’m afraid to come to work.”

This is exactly what his supervisor, Bryan Billy wants to hear. As the Director of Program Continuum at Teach For America – Alabama, Billy is in the business of developing talent. In fact, a major part of the work that his central staff does every day is support young professionals in their first years of teaching.  All this to say, he knows what growth looks like when he sees it.

“It was fun to see Jeremy come in very nervous the first day and then, today, cracking jokes with the staff. He’s definitely more comfortable now than he was on Day 1.”

For Billy and the staff at TFA-Alabama, students are at the heart of their work and so plugging into the EIP as a partner was a natural fit.

“We have a lot of one-on-one interactions with students at the teacher level, but central staff doesn’t always have that opportunity,” he says. “[With the internship] we’ve been able to do that here, too, to help students get on-the-job experience and put this on their college applications. In that way, we’re not only living out our mission through our teachers, but also through the work we do here on a daily basis.”

Amanda DuBois, Guest Services Manager at UAB Hospital, feels the same way. “Our partnership with health-sciences students has always been a ‘win-win’ situation,” she says. “The students win by being exposed to a variety of careers in the health sciences at one of the nation’s top academic medical centers. UAB wins by fostering a future work force and keeping us competitive by recruiting the best.”

A Classroom Like No Other

Ask our students what they’ve gained from working in these places and, often, we find them at a loss for words – no small feat when you’re talking to a teenager. You’ll hear lots of superlatives – the best, the greatest, the most awesome, incredible – but also qualifiers like “hands-on” and “real life,” words that serve as a testament to the authenticity of the experience.

As part of Ed’s initiatives on career exploration, the internship, and all the pieces that come before it, are intended to make more concrete for students the infinite possibilities that lay ahead of them and to give them the data points they need to decide which to bring to fruition. And if Jamesea is any indication, the program is doing just that. “Having this experience opens your eyes to see if you really want to do this,” she says. “Because if you don’t you’ll just give up on it, but if it’s something that you really want to do, you’ll stick at it. The money doesn’t matter. It’s that fact that you’re doing something that you want to do. Something that you love to do and would want to do for the rest of your life.”

It’s hard to replicate the real world in the classroom, impossible to capture the nuance of professional life through mock-interviews and speed-networking and lectures on business-casual attire – which is precisely why experiences like the Executive Internship Program can have such an incredible effect: because it opens the world up to the kids who will come after us.

You want to know what we live for at Ed? It’s this: the chance to walk into these buildings and find our kids behind these desks. Witnessing the exact moment when the students we have worked with for years become a part of the fabric of Birmingham, our partners folding them into their communities and daily work like they are their own. When Carver senior Mayco Heredia, having been asked what he’s learned in his time at Daxko, looks up from a line of code and writes our headline for us: “Everything,” he says. “Everything there is to know, I feel like I know it now.”


To learn more about the Birmingham Education Foundation’s Executive Internship Program and how you can partner to bring more internships to more kids, please email Program Director Victoria Hollis at vhollis@edbirmingham.org.