Social justice interns challenged in real-world situations of social inequality
By Margo Rutledge Kissell, University Communications and Marketing
Miami University junior Isabella Turner’s internship at the Immigrant & Refugee Law Center in East Price Hill has reinforced her desire to go to law school.
“This experience has opened my eyes to more possibilities and opportunities past immigration law but more widely international and human rights law,” Turner wrote in a reflection piece.
The Honors College student with double majors in Spanish and Psychology and a minor in Social Justice and Inequalities is one of 10 Miami students who participated in the Department of Sociology and Gerontology’s Social Justice Internship Program.
Mark Curnutte, visiting instructor of Social Justice, said the experiential learning program is designed for the three-week winter term. By working at agencies in Cincinnati neighborhoods, the students are challenged in real-world situations of social inequality. They work at the agencies Monday through Thursday, then meet for a class discussion on Friday.
“We know from our first three cohorts that the experiences provide significant learning opportunities,” Curnutte said. With nearly 20 agency partners available, he is able to match students with their academic or long-term interests.
This month, students interned at Crossroad Health Center, Over-the-Rhine Community Housing, Cincinnati Works, Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati, and the Freestore Foodbank.
The goal is to have students see themselves doing social justice work long-term.
“We want them to connect the social justice curriculum to these real-life experiences,” Curnutte said. “They interact with agency clients and patients, they talk with staff people, they see how these agencies operate and the challenges the agencies face as nonprofits.”
Generous donors in the community have helped fund the program, including former Procter & Gamble President and CEO John Pepper and his wife, Francie. The students live in Over-the-Rhine while taking the SOC 340 internship class.
The senior College of Arts and Science (CAS) liaison at Miami’s Center for Career Exploration and Success meets with the participating students in November to talk about how to maximize this experience in terms of creating and nurturing relationships, putting it on their resume, and writing thank-you notes, Curnutte said.
“We talk with students about the professionalization of the liberal arts major because some of our CAS students are under pressure from parents and society in general to major in business or something that they assume will mean a better livelihood,” Curnutte said. “We show them that the skills they are developing as CAS students — writing, for example — are in-demand by employers. We try to expose them to what's possible in nonprofits, that they don't have to sacrifice their idealism or desire to contribute to a better, more equitable world in order to make a living.”
Reflecting on their internship experiences
As part of the course, the students are required to write a reflection every night they work.
Last week, Turner wrote about sitting in on a consultation session involving children from another country. She joined a paralegal case manager, an attorney, a social worker, a court-appointed special advocate, and a doctor in the session.
“This provided a great insight to the complexity of obtaining U.S. citizenship,” she wrote. “Specifically, in this case, the children will need to file for Special Immigrant Juvenile (SIJ) Status since they were trafficked into the U.S. Furthermore, if the girls are granted SIJ Status, they will then have to apply for Lawful Permanent Residency and will have to wait 2 years to do so. Only then, if they are granted LPR will they be able to apply for U.S. citizenship.”
The process will likely take several years, and she wishes she could follow the case to know how it works out. “(The attorney) thinks that the girls will be able to get SIJ status on account of their trafficking, abuse, and other tragedies that prevent them from returning” to that country, she said.
Turner, who was born in Guatemala and adopted by a family in Tennessee, would like to reconnect with her Guatemalan roots. She said a career in law could allow her to learn more about the culture and conditions there.
Cam McCarty, a junior from Wooster majoring in Sociology and Individualized Studies with a minor in Social Justice and Inequalities, interned at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency (CAA). He would like to work for a nonprofit after graduation.
A recent reflection piece focused on meeting a man while volunteering at a food pantry.
“He has been in and out of jail for most of his life and decided to enroll in the career pathways program here to get out of the life he was previously in and start a career,” wrote McCarty, whose Individualized Studies (Western Program) focus at Miami is on community outreach to the underprivileged.
The man, who began his new construction job this week, told McCarty he was excited about it because he will now be able to make a living wage. “This really stuck with me because of the importance of the programs and services that the CAA offer,” McCarty said.
McCarty’s biggest takeaway from the internship?
“There are so many communities that are underserved and left behind by the system that could use a helping hand,” he said. “The CAA has a motto of ‘from cradle to career,’ which shows the devotion of the nonprofit of serving the community in any way they are able to.”
Nikki Williams, CAA’s chief of staff and vice president of community relations, said the agency has worked in partnership with the Social Justice Internship Program for four years.
“It has been a pleasure to work with these motivated students over the years. During their time at CAA, these students have been able to learn about our agency and how we help the community,” she said. “And their volunteerism lends a helping hand at our food pantries, call center, and facilities/maintenance, allowing us to accomplish large projects.”