The benefits of paid internships stretch far beyond a classroom. For students and communities, they can be crucial.

India Yarborough
Topeka Capital-Journal
Allison Montague, a rising senior at Topeka High School, talks about her experience as a paid intern at Stormont Vail Health, where she has served as a patient safety monitor.

Completing internships before stepping into the workforce full time can be crucial for students, as such opportunities offer hands-on experience and help them determine whether a career is a good fit.

That has been the case for Allison Montague, a rising senior at Topeka High School.

This past school year, Montague completed a paid internship at Stormont Vail Hospital, where she served as a patient safety monitor and helped Stormont nurses with some of their daily tasks.

"I'm really excited about the exposure and getting different hospital experience," said Montague, who wants to become a physical therapist after completing college.

And her Stormont internship helped solidify that decision, potentially giving her an advantage over peers who might enter college not knowing where they want to land.

Normally, you wouldn't see high schoolers helping with patient care in a hospital setting, but thanks to a partnership between Stormont Vail and Topeka Unified School District 501, Montague and other high schoolers in the district have had the opportunity to do just that.

The Stormont Vail alliance is one of several official partnerships Topeka Public Schools has formed with area employers to offer local high-school students paid internship opportunities. Other partners include Advisors Excel and, as of last month, Hill's Pet Nutrition.

USD 501 Superintendent Tiffany Anderson sees the paid internship program as "project-based learning at its best." But the benefits of such partnerships stretch far beyond the classroom, as paid internships have the potential to improve student outcomes, promote career readiness and enhance the Topeka community's local talent pipeline.

"In order to feed the talent pipeline right here in Topeka and to keep Topeka a place — like under Momentum 2022 — where people want to work, live and play, we have to create opportunities for students," Anderson said.

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Paid internships prepare students for careers

Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of Topeka USD 501, talks earlier this month at TCALC about the importance of internship programs, especially paid opportunities.

Thirty to 40 students from Topeka Public Schools and other districts in the area participate each school year in 501's paid internship program, which is offered through the Topeka Center for Advanced Learning & Careers.

"This is all our students. It's not a Topeka problem or a Topeka opportunity," Anderson said. "If there's an opportunity, a pathway, a program, an innovative system that you want to be part of, if we have it, it's available and open to any student."

Matthew Carmona, a rising senior at Jefferson West High School, is one such student from another area district who is taking advantage of the paid internship program.

Like Montague, Carmona interned this past school year at Stormont Vail, but since he has an interest in law enforcement, he worked in the hospital's security department.

"I love it," Carmona said. "I think it's really helped fuel my interest for this career field."

And along the way, he has learned some helpful information about how best to go down that path.

"There's a time period in law enforcement when it's incredibly hard to get into the career, and that's from when you're 18 to when you're 21," Carmona said. "While I was interning at Stormont, I was talking to a bunch of people in the security department, and they were like, 'The best way to fill that spot is to go and get your EMT certification.'

"So they've all walked me through that process, and now, I'm going to get my EMT certification next summer. ... I had never even considered it."

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Edwin Koc, director of research, public policy and legislative affairs for the National Association of Colleges and Employers, said gaining knowledge of a profession and getting work experience under one's belt are key benefits of participating in internships.

"When we ask employers what's the cutting-edge choice in terms of picking one individual over another in terms of their hiring decision," Koc said, "the No. 1 factor is workplace experience."

Though the association's research focuses primarily on college students and their internships — which tend to be more common, as many college programs include internships in their graduation requirements — Koc indicated such opportunities, both paid and unpaid, have become critically important when it comes to landing jobs and negotiating a young adult's starting salary.

"We've been tracking this for 10-12 years," Koc said, "and what we see is that kids who have had internship experience tend to get jobs quicker. They have a higher offer rate. They have a higher acceptance rate. So they end up with a job sooner.

"In addition to that, when they've gone through an internship — especially when they've gone through a paid internship — they tend to get salary offers at a higher level, approximately $10,000 more, in terms of starting salary, than students who have not gone through an internship. From that perspective, it's obviously a real advantage."

Koc added that students who have been surveyed indicate internships contribute greatly to their career readiness, especially in four key areas: professionalism, communication skills, teamwork and critical thinking.

And he noted some of the lessons gleaned from college-level internship data may still be applicable at the high-school level.

"The value of gaining work knowledge, experience, that'll translate to the high-school internship," he said. "In terms of accessing jobs and the development of career opportunities ... I can't really speak to that at the high-school level and how that will work. The real question there is who at the high-school level gets the internship, and will they continue on with further education or want to go directly into the workforce?"

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Early career exploration can improve student, community outcomes

Ann Bush, communications specialist for the Kansas State Department of Education, said early career exploration may prepare students for a variety of postsecondary opportunities, including "short-term training certificates, associate degrees, bachelor degrees, the military and employee training programs."

Shawn Raasch, a rising senior at Topeka West High School, also completed an internship this past year with Stormont Vail. He went into the program knowing he wanted to go into the medical field, perhaps as a doctor.

But the internship helped him narrow his career focus, as he realized many physicians don't interact with patients as much as he had hoped.

"I just love the patient interaction a lot more," Raasch said. "I still wanted the medical authority, so I'm leaning more toward toward (physician assistant)."

From left, Allison Montague, rising senior at Topeka High; Matthew Carmona, rising senior at Jefferson West; and Shawn Raasch, a rising senior at Topeka West, talk about their experiences as interns at Stormont Vail Health.

Not only do internships help students determine their postsecondary paths, but such paid opportunities may have ancillary effects.

"Paid career readiness opportunities, like internships and registered apprenticeships, have the potential to minimize socioeconomic gaps," Bush said.

For instance, it might prevent students from having to choose between a paid job they need and an internship opportunity they want.

And Carmona, the Jefferson West student, echoed that sentiment.

"I think the experience of the internship, in and of itself, is an amazing draw," Carmona said. "But I pay for a lot of my own stuff, and I feel like if I had to go through this internship and it was unpaid and had a different job and school, I feel like that would just be so much for someone who doesn't have a whole lot of time to keep up with all those things.

"So I think the fact that it is paid takes a little bit off your shoulders."

Superintendent Anderson has seen similar choices play out first hand for some USD 501 students.

"Whether you are literally homeless and working within the district or beyond, or whether you are just someone who needs an extra job for your books, your car, whatever items come up in high school, that is a stressor," Anderson said. "It is a challenge. And the more that work unrelated to your academic career plan gets in the way, the more challenging it is to finish your academic career.

"If we can align those so your work and your academic pursuits in the future line up, we have not only given you a running start, but we've helped you gain experience and opportunity."

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She said for Topeka and Shawnee County to improve student outcomes and prevent socioeconomic factors from getting in the way for some students, it is important for paid high school internship opportunities to be available.

"For Topeka to prosper, like many vibrant communities and cities, we have to take care of one another," Anderson said. "One way to do that is to invest in the talent pipeline. And this is the talent pipeline."

Bush said 35% of Kansas schools reported internship activities during the 2019-2020 school year. What portion of those schools offered paid internships, however, is unclear.

"We know access to these experiences was somewhat limited in many areas of the state by the COVID-19 pandemic, but KSDE is partnering with Kansas Workforce Centers to develop and expand these types of opportunities across the state," Bush said.

Anderson said Topeka Public Schools' internship opportunities are special.

"Because you're talking with students from different pathways, you're talking to students from different communities," she said. "I think the layers that we've built in and the support systems and for it to be paid is unique to TCALC in many ways — but certainly can be replicated."

And she hopes other districts, as they look to improve student outcomes and address community workforce needs, will do just that.

"Creating that, whether it's through business or whether it's through the school district, is, I think, part of our responsibility," she said.