Ahon Gooptu

The Pivot

When students’ plans for internships and other opportunities were at risk due to the pandemic, they responded with new approaches, new attitudes, and new opportunities.
By Tim Schmitt

Ahon Gooptu ’21 remembers the exact moment he found out he'd been awarded and an internship at the prestigious Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, a position he’d been trying to earn for two years.

Ahon Gooptu in three poses

“I was in choir in Sebring-Lewis Hall in the Bucksbaum Center in late February 2020. It was around 4:35 or so, and the note I received just said ‘Ahon — Steppenwolf internship,’” he recalls. “I took a moment and stepped outside, and I screamed to myself in the corridor. I couldn’t believe I got it! It definitely took a couple days for it to settle in and feel real.”

The euphoria was short-lived, however. Soon after receiving the news, Gooptu found out that Grinnell College was responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by shifting to remote education and sending students home. And just one month later, he learned that Steppenwolf was going to award only four virtual internships, rather than the dozen or so it normally sponsors.

“Participating in this [virtual] internship has really shaped my career path and how I approach networking. From now on I know there will be greater emphasis on communicating on a digital platform. The work has really improved my tech savviness, and I feel lucky to have had this opportunity.”

— Trinisa Fung ’23

“They said, ‘We don’t know what we are doing. We will let you know as soon as we can,’” he recalls. “It was my dream internship. I had applied the year before and didn’t get it. And then getting the news that it might not happen? It was devastating.”

With encouragement from his CLS adviser, Rachel Edwards Harvith ’00, who serves as director of the Arts, Media, and Communications Career Community, Gooptu reached out to Steppenwolf and expressed interest in one of the limited slots for the virtual internship. He was chosen as one of four interns and spent the summer of 2020 doing education and outreach for the company and helping it expand its national audience.

Gooptu helped high school students engage with working artists virtually and with teachers who would teach George Orwell’s Animal Farm. In addition, he completed a study guide for students to use while producing a radio version of the play.

“We did a lot of planning for the fall season,” he says. “Usually education, the area I was working in, is in charge of Steppenwolf for Young Adults, another wing geared to high school students in the Chicagoland area. But we expanded the program to students outside of Chicago for the first time, ultimately reaching more than 20,000 students in all 50 states and around the world.” (Watch Gooptu and other Grinnellians talk about how CLS is giving students a competitive edge in their future pursuits.)

More personal than in person

Other Grinnell students joined Gooptu in making the leap into the virtual world. And, in 2021, the College jumped into the fray, transforming traditionally in-person opportunities for externships, short-term job-shadowing and mentoring experiences, to virtual ones.

Coordinated by the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS), the externship program at Grinnell had in previous years allowed students to meet with alumni who volunteered to spend three to five days mentoring them, bringing them to work, arranging informational interviews with colleagues, and giving them short-term projects. Many alumni even hosted students in their own homes, adding an even more personal connection to the experience.

“It is always a really good experience that the students benefit from immensely,” says Donna Miller, assistant dean and director of advising and exploration in the CLS. “Last year all these externships had to be canceled at the last minute. We didn’t want to just lose the program for another year, so we decided to see if virtual externships would work.”

Earlier this year, 22 alumni volunteered to host students virtually for an externship over spring break — a new twist on the program that could have a lasting impact.

“I had one prior externship experience three years ago in which I had a student come and live with me for a week and go with me to work in person,” says Dawn Benard Fritzell ’89, senior manager of strategic initiatives for the global procurement center of excellence at Kimberly-Clark. “Last year I signed up again and had been paired up with a student who was set to come last March. After it fell apart, we stayed in touch, and I was happy to make it work this year with her.”

That student, Jivyaa Vaidya ’23, had planned to travel to Appleton, Wisconsin, to stay with Fritzell at her home over the 2020 spring break and go to her workplace in person for her externship.

“I thought an internship would be most productive or fruitful when I was in the office meeting with people,” Vaidya says. “But this worked out for the best. Dawn is on a global team, so I met a lot of people virtually anyway.”

Vaidya sat in on virtual team meetings, during which Fritzell always shared her computer screen and her notes as she made them so Vaidya could see how she ran and organized the meeting. She observed one-on-one work and also met individually in virtual meetings with Fritzell’s colleagues in several areas of the business and in several countries.

“I tried to include her in conversations where there were participants from all over the world, and she got to see them rather than just hear them. Had it been in person, it would have just been a conference call rather than a video conference. So, it was actually more personal, even though it was not in person.”

Jivyaa Vaidya, Rachel Edwards Harvith, Dawn Benard Fritzell, Rochelle Gandour-Rood

(clockwise from top left) Jivyaa Vaidya ’23 Rachel Edwards Harvith ’00, Rochelle Gandour-Rood ’02, Dawn Benard Fritzell ’89

Involved, Engaged, and 2,000 Miles Away

Rochelle Gandour-Rood ’02 has hosted students at her home for externships three times since 2012 and had planned to do another in 2020. Kaitlin Michaels ’23, a student from the Chicago area studying the medical humanities, was set to come to Gandour-Rood’s home in the Tacoma, Washington, area for an externship at Tacoma Water, where Gandour- Rood works in community engagement and conservation.

“We had met twice, and she had sent me her list of interests. And I was already setting up informational meetings with my colleagues,” says Gandour-Rood. “She had done all the legwork; and right before she was set to come here, it began falling apart.”

In 2021, Gandour-Rood volunteered to host a student virtually and was again matched with Michaels for an externship that looked quite different.

“One of the things I value with the home stay is the less-structured evening time when I can talk with the students about their day and learn about who they are,” says Gandour- Rood. “So, we didn’t get that time together, or the time to do casual debriefings after a meeting. There was a conscious effort to put time on her calendar every day to talk.”

In the weeklong virtual externship, Michaels conducted several informational interviews with people about their roles in the company, attended various events, viewed presentations from staff members, worked on a small project researching ideas for public engagement, and presented the ideas to Gandour-Rood at the end of the week.

“In-person externships are valuable,” Michaels says. “But digital externships are important as well. I think continuing them would allow more students and hosts to participate, and it would mean even more opportunities for Grinnell students.”

Virtual Possibilities

While virtual internship programs are relatively new, they are not unheard of. The federal government has had such a program in place for several years, and many Grinnell students have already participated with great success.

Since 2009, the Virtual Student Federal Service (VSFS) has offered eight-month virtual internships with various branches of the U.S. government in areas such as counterterrorism, human rights monitoring, and developing virtual programs.

Destiny Magnett ’22 participated in the VSFS program as an intern for the Religious and Ethnic Minorities Unit in the Middle East Bureau at the U.S. Agency for Development (USAID).

“I think continuing [virtual externships] would allow more students and hosts to participate, and it would mean even more opportunities for Grinnell students.”

— Kaitlin Michaels ’23

Among her many projects, Magnett worked with the team carrying out the June 2020 Executive Order on Advancing International Religious Freedom, created communications about the “Rebuilding Our Homes” initiative in Morocco, and worked to identify faith-based organizations for future USAID partnerships.

“The internship allows me the flexibility to work on projects on my own time around my class schedules, but also includes a few synchronous meetings each week that allow me to forge mentorships with my supervisors as well as meet the other interns on the team who are from colleges and universities around the country,” she said.

Trinisa Fung ’23 is virtually working a VSFS internship with the U.S. State Department consulate in Prague.

Trinisa Fung, Destiny Magnett ’22, Claire Pollard ’22

(l to r) Trinisa Fung ’23 Destiny Magnett ’22 Claire Pollard ’22

Fung fact-checks and creates presentations that her mentor shares with other researchers. One of her projects analyzed how foreign governments use social media and news outlets to present an image of themselves to the international community.

“Participating in this internship has really shaped my career path and how I approach networking,” she says. “From now on I know there will be greater emphasis on communicating on a digital platform. The work has really improved my tech savviness, and I feel lucky to have had this opportunity.”

Through the VSFS, Claire Pollard ’22 is interning virtually from her home in Champaign, Illinois, with Ron Packowitz, a diplomat with the U.S. State Department.

In addition to the VSFS internship, Pollard worked last summer in a remote internship with the Champaign legal department and Champaign United Way. When her current internship wraps up, she will begin an internship with

Ethan Cohen ’86 in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Chicago district office. This internship will be virtual at first and shift to in-person later.

Pollard says working virtually made it “easier to set up events in multiple states in the same day and connect with multiple people at one time. The lawyers I worked with last summer worked extra hard to make me feel included because they knew there was that extra barrier in place. People are more conscious of their interaction with interns, and I really appreciated that.

Changing Days, Changing Ways

Before she was hosting student externs at her home, Gandour-Rood was a Grinnell student who went through the extern program herself. While that in-person experience helped shape her career and who she is today, she believes that the virtual opportunities now available can just as effectively — and maybe more easily — have the same impact on today’s students.

“I was an extern in January 2000, over winter break,” she recalls. “I spent a week shadowing John Elmore ’90 in his middle school science classroom at the all-girls Hewitt School on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I stayed with a friend on Long Island; I took the

[Long Island Rail Road] and the No. 6 train to the school every blustery morning and home again in the cold, dark evenings. I learned not just about teaching, but about commuting, about school community, about social class, and about continuous professional learning.

“Being an extern is a chance to see what work life and adult life will be like when a student graduates. So, if going virtual is the truest way for students to learn what work is like now … then we should have the virtual option for the careers that can accommodate it.”

— Rochelle Gandour-Rood ’02

“I believe in the externship program because it worked for me as a student, and it still works for me as an alum. Now, it gives me a connection to campus — to hear what’s going on and what students are doing these days — and is my favorite way to give back to the College that did so much for me as a young adult.”

But as jobs and the workforce have changed over the years, Gandour-Rood says the programs that are meant to introduce students to the working world should adapt as well.

“More than anything, being an extern is a chance to see what work life and adult life will be like when a student graduates,” she says. “So, if going virtual is the truest way for students to learn what work is like now — or if it makes the externship more accessible to more students, and easier and more environmentally friendly without all the travel then we should have the virtual option for the careers that can accommodate it.”

With the first round of these virtual externships now complete, CLS is reviewing the program.

“We’re really hoping to expand our alumni participation, and doing so virtually would be less onerous for them,” Miller says. “We are still assessing how the virtual component worked this year, but we’re moving ahead and plan to do it again next year.”

Gooptu’s reflections on his Steppenwolf internship also capture where Grinnell is today and where the College, career mentoring, and society are headed.

“Everything changed,” he says. “But I felt at every step along the way that this was not just a temporary measure. I felt that we were laying the groundwork for how things would be in the future.”

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