Interns are an integral part of how Washington, D.C. does business. Every summer, thousands of undergraduates from across the country descend on the city in an eager swarm, working in Congress, at think tanks, at K Street lobbying firms, for national and local nonprofit organizations, and more.
In the nation’s capital, most of us assume that interns are typically well-off college students, checking the prestigious D.C. internship off their ladder to success, with parents who can afford to subsidize their children in unpaid, resume-building work experiences.
But interns in Urban Alliance’s High School Internship Program are different.
They are high school seniors from underserved communities in the Washington region, many of whom have not yet been exposed to a professional work environment. They are driven to succeed, but lack the connections, tools, and opportunities to do so. And very few, to be sure, have the luxury of time or finances to accept an unpaid internship, no matter how valuable the experience might be.
Urban Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based youth workforce development nonprofit, offers economically disadvantaged students the opportunity to get the same leg up as their middle and upper-class peers. Through a combination of a 10-month, professional, paid internship, job skills training, one-on-one mentoring, and intensive support during and after high school, Urban Alliance inspires interns to expand their idea of what is possible for their future.
According to the advocacy group Opportunity Nation, 5.5 million young people nationwide lack the skills, knowledge, and experience to connect to a meaningful college or career pathway. Young people of color and from low-income backgrounds are at greatest risk for this kind of disconnection. And given projections that fully three-quarters of job openings in the next decade will require the kind of “soft skills” not usually taught in high school, this growing population of disconnected youth could also have an enormous impact on our nation’s economy.
At the Meyer Foundation, we pursue and invest in solutions that build an equitable Greater Washington community in which economically vulnerable people thrive. We focus on local organizations whose work advances and supports three long-term community goals for the Washington region in housing, asset building and financial security, and employment.
Urban Alliance is a wonderful fit with our mission, and in 1999 we began funding the organization. Our support has helped the program expand from placing just six students in internships its first year to over 430 students last year, and from partnering with just one D.C. high school in 1996 to over 70 schools in D.C., Northern Virginia, Baltimore, and Chicago today.
The Foundation has remained a committed funder year after year because Urban Alliance’s approach really works. One hundred percent of Urban Alliance students graduate from high school; over 90 percent are accepted to college. A further 80 percent of enrolled alumni persist to a second year in college, and 80 percent of all alumni are connected to a college, career, or career-training pathway one year post-program. Those are impressive results.
Making a measurable impact
Last summer, Urban Alliance released the results of a six-year, independent randomized controlled trial (RCT) conducted by Urban Institute measuring their High School Internship Program’s impact. Only two percent of nonprofits ever commit to an RCT, commonly considered the gold standard of program evaluation. And many who do go through the lengthy process come out with only null or negative results to show for it. Not Urban Alliance.
Organizations like Urban Alliance are changing the face of success in Washington and other cities by building a more diverse, dynamic, and equitable workforce.
The study found that completing Urban Alliance’s program has had a statistically significant impact on key metrics: the likelihood of young men attending college, the likelihood of mid-tier (2.0-3.0 GPA) students enrolling in a four-year college, and students’ comfort with and retention of soft skills (such as what to wear to work, how to communicate with co-workers and supervisors, and why meeting deadlines matters). The organization will leverage these results to expand to a fifth region next year, and grow its reach here in the D.C. region as well.
The Meyer Foundation is thrilled to support a proven model that makes a tangible difference to youth in the region. Working so closely with Urban Alliance, we’ve been privileged to see the results of our investment, not just through impressive statistics, but through the individual students who come out of their experience more confident, more ambitious, and better positioned to succeed.
One such student is Angelo Alfaro, a 2017 Urban Alliance graduate, who shared his transformation story in front of a crowd at the program’s culminating event this past summer. As a senior at D.C.’s Woodrow Wilson High School, Angelo had the opportunity to intern at LearnZillion, a cloud-based digital K-12 curriculum service. Working there under the supervision of his mentor, Angelo discovered personal strengths and a new interest for his future.
“Urban Alliance developed me as a person,” he said. “Nine months ago I would not have imagined doing this speech in front of you all. I was an introvert and would stay to myself. Working with my mentor, Ronak, opened me up more and developed my communication skills and computer literacy.”
“This program teaches us the significance of networking, but I didn’t realize its importance until I started working at my job site,” Angelo added. “The opportunity to interact with my co-workers led to deeper knowledge and provided guidance.”
Angelo is now a freshman at Marymount University in Virginia, studying business administration and finance. Seeing firsthand how a business operated helped him envision a new future for himself and determined his choice of major.
At Urban Alliance, Angelo’s story is the rule rather than the exception.
And the Meyer Foundation is not the only one to take notice. Requests from school principals and local officials in Montgomery County, Maryland led Urban Alliance to expand there this fall. We’re so pleased to support its continued growth in the National Capital Region, helping the organization bring workforce development and internship opportunities to even more young, driven, and underserved high school students.
Organizations like Urban Alliance are changing the face of success here in Washington by building a more diverse, dynamic, and equitable workforce. And for funders like the Meyer Foundation, that’s all the proof we need that investing in our youth is a smart decision.
Karen FitzGerald is program director at the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.