Interview

Underrepresented New York Students Have Remote Externships For The Summer of 2020: Thank you, OppNet!

Paragon One is proud to partner with The Opportunity Network to match first generation college students and young people of color with online externships through the COVID19 crisis.

Tamara Mathias
February 2, 2022

Paragon One is proud to partner with The Opportunity Network to match first generation college students and young people of color with online externships through the COVID19 crisis.

First generation college graduates from underserved communities are often shocked to discover that job offers aren’t necessarily the outcome of a university degree. 

In reality, many young graduates tend to rely on a network of industry contacts, usually colleagues of their parents who have worked white collar jobs for decades, to snag that first internship. For students of color, who are the first in their families to make it through university, these advantages simply don’t exist when they’re looking to catch their first break. Worse still, those who do make it to an office environment struggle harder to learn the ropes because they lack mentorship.

For years, The Opportunity Network’s mission has been to ignite the drive, curiosity and agency of students from low income families in New York as they progress through high school, college, and into thriving careers. Through its six-year OppNet Fellows program, the non-profit supports students to and through college, providing them with career guidance, internship opportunities, counselling services and financial assistance that helps them complete their degrees and begin their careers.

When COVID19 hit, the organization knew it was more important than ever to ramp up its support for this community.

In early June, sixty OppNet students from low income families joined scores of others enrolled in Paragon One’s remote externships to work on projects for a range of companies from Facebook and Zillow to venture capital firms.

We chatted with Iza Benedicto, Program Associate on The Opportunity Network’s internships team, to discuss why Paragon One’s remote externship offering was a great fit for their students during this critical time.

What particular concerns do you have for the students you work with, since the pandemic has gained ground in the United States?

IB: Marginalized communities tend to bear the brunt of economic hardship during global crises. Because of the demographic of the students that we work with, we know they have been hit harder than most, both economically and emotionally. We work to reduce the opportunity gap that these students face but, during a time like this, family income suffers and factors like paying rent and healthcare bills take precedence over finding the right internships in the summer.


Iza Benedicto of The Opportunity Network at work

What sort programs do you usually invest in over the summer and how have these efforts been stymied by the COVID19 crisis?

Our students don’t have the social capital to navigate through the world of business on their own, so our efforts are focused on providing them with that. We fund internships, study abroad initiatives, pre-collegiate programs, and even trips to volunteer in Guatemala during the summer. This year, however, we knew there weren't going to be as many internships available and a lot of the internships that we might have secured, because of the circumstances, might not exist anymore. That’s where Paragon One, with its online internships for the summer of 2020, across different industries, became a great fit.


You’re working to help students who suddenly have bigger concerns to contend with than internships and school. Why does the Paragon One program help you keep them on track with building their careers?

IB: We needed to find our students work experience opportunities that were flexible, valuable to their career development, but still doable. One thing that captured me is that Paragon One’s remote externships are not full time jobs, which I think was very important considering the unknown this summer. It was important for me that students had the flexibility to be able to do something else, like if they needed to take additional classes, or work an extra job that pays hourly, to help their families economically.

We have 60 OppNet students working with companies like Facebook and Zillow through our remote externship program. Which particular students did you believe were the right fit for this program?

IB: 46 of the students enrolled in Paragon One virtual externships at the moment are in college and the rest are in high school. What they have in common is that they wanted to spend their summer building hands-on skills for the workplace. We also opened this up to students who were interested in business and marketing, in particular. Paragon One is like an entry point, so I felt like the program was good for students who maybe hadn’t thought about working in business, but were keen to understand what that was like.

What challenges are your students facing with the remote externships and how are these being managed?

IB: I really like that these projects are remote “externships”, not internships for two reasons. One, because the duration of five to eight weeks is not too long, but is still a good amount of time for students to really learn something and complete a project. And two, because the partnership aspect of the externship allows us to get great feedback, regularly liaise with the Paragon One team and monitor students’ progress. So we can reach out to them if they’re facing challenges and we know what support they need. Some of them have problems at home, poor internet connections or inadequate computers, for example. So aside from investing in the Paragon One program, we’ve also been providing them with Chromebooks and paying Internet bills. 

The range of support we provide is wide, but the idea is that we give students the access and support they need to follow their own paths. We’re basically the work-moms and work-dads for these kids!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tamara Mathias

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