By Amanda Hughett
History Ph.D. Candidate
When I started graduate school, I knew I wanted to remain active in my community and perhaps even pursue a job beyond the academy after graduation. So, I set out in search of an internship after I became A.B.D. in the fall of 2013.
I knew I wanted to work in the field of criminal justice policy because my dissertation examines how civil-liberties lawyers helped to reshape the corrections system in the wake of the prisoners’ rights movement of the 1970s. Through a friend working beyond the academy, I learned about the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), a Durham-based organization devoted to advancing the political, social, and economic rights of communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities in the South.
I learned from the SCSJ’s website that its staff members were engaged in a number of criminal-justice-related initiatives that I found interesting and important. But I also discovered that the SCSJ took a unique approach to organizing that I admired and was curious to learn more about—one that mustered the skills of lawyers, social science researchers, organizers, and communications specialists to solve problems identified by the communities SCSJ served.
Sold on the SCSJ’s mission, I took a chance and emailed Daryl Atkinson, the senior staff attorney overseeing the organization’s criminal justice initiatives. In the email, I told Daryl a bit about my own research and my background as an organizer for Planned Parenthood of Illinois. Most importantly, though, I explained I was interested in learning more about his work and that, in exchange, I’d like to help him in any way possible. I concluded by asking Daryl if there was a time we could sit down and discuss ways we could work together.
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“Most people don’t know what historians “do” professionally, so I anticipated having to explain how my skills could be of use to his organization.”
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Despite his busy schedule, Daryl asked me to visit the SCSJ soon after he received my letter. Before our meeting, I sat down and came up with some questions. I also made a list of the ways I thought I could be of use to the SCSJ. At the meeting, I made a point to be friendly and engaging but also to be confident. Most people don’t know what historians “do” professionally, so I anticipated having to explain how my skills could be of use to his organization. I emphasized my ability to conduct qualitative research and to quickly comprehend and write in a variety of genres.
After our meeting, Daryl asked me to write a cover letter he could circulate during an upcoming staff meeting. In the letter, I reiterated the skills I had to offer and the skills I hoped to acquire while serving as an intern. Luckily, the SCSJ staff welcomed me aboard.
First, Daryl and I sat down to negotiate my title, hours, and tasks. We decided I would work as a “public policy intern” for twenty hours each week. The SCSJ was particularly interested in utilizing my skills as a writer, so I started off writing grants, position papers, and policy summaries. It was great to practice new genres of writing that I can perhaps put to use in future positions. While perfecting my pieces, I also learned a wide range of other useful skills, including how to cultivate donors, create budgets, and navigate grant databases.
I felt “in my element” while writing for the SCSJ, but I knew I also wanted to grow in areas beyond my comfort zone and acquire new skills. With this goal in mind, I attended coalition meetings regarding criminal justice issues, and I even gave a presentation on “Ban the Box” initiatives to a local city council. Such opportunities pushed me to hone my skills as a public speaker and to practice developing arguments with varied audiences in mind.
Like most internships in the nonprofit sector, mine was unpaid. But unpaid internships often lead to paid work. In 2014, I drew on my experiences with the SCSJ to become a paid copywriter for the ACLU of North Carolina’s 50th anniversary museum exhibit. My experiences with the SCSJ bolstered my confidence when explaining my skills, negotiating my salary, and working alongside individuals with training different from my own.
I was pleased with the practical new skills I had acquired. But, surprisingly, I found that my internship also shaped the way I thought about my dissertation. While at the SCSJ, I had the privilege of watching the organization’s lawyers in action as they strategized about their legal tactics and negotiated with their clients and coalition partners. Witnessing SCSJ lawyers work helped me to better envision the challenges my historical actors faced as they set out to reform the criminal justice system during the last third of the twentieth century.
After my internship, I integrated the lessons I learned at the SCSJ into my dissertation—and so far the changes have paid off. In September 2015, I began a two-year dissertation fellowship at the American Bar Foundation in Illinois.
Although graduate students may seek out very different internship opportunities to suit their own interests and needs, I learned a few lessons relevant to everyone: Don’t be afraid to reach out to organizations that interest you. Many organizations (and not just the nonprofits) are often understaffed so they can usually use some help. Be confident. Be kind. And be willing to do work you’re not excited about in exchange for learning new skills that do excite you. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to find an internship that helps you grow as a scholar and as a human who, for better or worse, lives in the world beyond the ivory tower.
Amanda Hughett is a Ph.D. candidate in history and a Law and Social Sciences Dissertation Fellow at the American Bar Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. She is a founding member of the History Professional Development Committee.
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Ready to pursue an internship of your own? The VH@Duke internship program offers students the option to apply for opportunities at pre-identified partner organizations or to propose their own internship. Apply by February 17, 2017.