Skyler Hilton has the perfect summer internship. He’s working in a busy, cutting-edge tech office, learning modern job skills like 3D modeling and video editing, and making friends and connections along the way.
But the most important benefit is something else entirely: a paycheck.
“I grew up in a poor family. If this job didn’t pay, I never could have done it,” he said. “I’ve even been able to save some money.”
While high school students scramble for internships during these uncertain times, some companies and schools are working together to offer internships that can help students financially—giving them valuable work experience, a head-start on their career, and much-needed income.
High School Internships Offer a Head Start on a 21st Century Career
Skyler, who’ll be a senior this fall at Elizabethton High, an XQ school in rural Tennessee, is spending the summer at a small tech firm in Jackson, Miss., called Lobaki, that creates virtual reality experiences for schools. Along with Elizabethton classmate, Levi Shingleton, Skyler is working with developers, designers, and artists as well as getting a foothold in the rapidly expanding VR industry.
The move to Jackson for the summer was a big jump for Skyler, who was spending time away from home for the first time. (Jackson is about 10 hours by car from Elizabethton.) While it was nerve-wracking at first, the experience has been life-altering, he said.
“I love it here. It’s been amazing. I wake up excited to go to work,” explained Skyler. “And there’s nothing like real job experience. I’ve learned and progressed so much…And it’s exciting to be a part of the VR industry. VR has so much potential, and we’re only beginning to see what that is.”
Engaging Students in Real-World Projects with Industry Partners
The internships came about thanks to a connection between Lobaki’s chief executive, Vince Jordan, and Elizabethton High teacher and XQ director Alex Campbell. Last year, Campbell saw Jordan on a TV news show, speaking about the importance of training and mentoring young people in the tech industry, especially young people from rural areas.
Campbell was immediately interested. Like rural areas across the country, Elizabethton grapples with local poverty and a shortage of well-paying jobs. Young people tend to move away for work, and many never return.
“Elizabethton is a beautiful area, it’s safe, it’s a great place to live, but we have a lot of generational poverty. There are whole families getting by on less than $25,000 a year, and a lot of people do not see a way out of their situation,” Campbell explained.
Elizabethton High wanted to engage students in new tech industries. They launch a virtual reality program, so some students would have the basic skills to do entry-level VR work. Campbell thought Lobaki might be a perfect match for his students.
“So, I just picked up the phone and called him. To my shock, he picked up,” Campbell said.
Campbell invited Jordan to visit the high school, and Jordan was impressed with the students’ skills, enthusiasm, and motivation. It was an easy decision to hire Skyler and Levi for summer jobs, he said, and he plans to hire more Elizabethton students next year. He even offered a full-time job to Levi, who just graduated.
“With so many schools closed, VR is skyrocketing right now. We knew we were going to need some new talent,” Jordan said. “A big part of our mission is to change the lives of young people and give them opportunities. So the whole thing made sense.”
Supporting and Encouraging 21st Century Learners
At XQ, we believe we have to prepare students to live in our global society—to be excited about emerging fields and ready to meet world challenges. That means we must give them critical thinking skills and encourage their creativity to meet the demands of the 21st century.
For Skyler’s teachers that meant fostering his interest in virtual reality sparked by “The Matrix.”
“In ninth grade, I went to my teacher and said, ‘Teach me everything you know about computers because I want to do VR,’ ” he said. “With virtual reality, if you can imagine it, you can do it.”
Skyler’s classmate Levi became interested in virtual reality through a very different route: bumblebees. Long fascinated by the insects buzzing around his mom’s flower garden, Levi decided to create a virtual reality experience of a beehive, to demonstrate the critical role bees play in the ecosystem.
Levi loves VR, he said, “because it’s an open field. It’s technical but it’s also creative.”
Like Skyler, Levi had never been away from home. Working in the Lobaki office has been challenging and fun, and it has given him new ideas about his future. Instead of going to pharmacy school, like he once planned, he’s now considering all options.
“It seemed that my life was always about checking off lists. Now I feel like I’ve gone from the status quo to being a complete outlier,” he said. “This internship has gotten me out of my shell. It’s been really rewarding.”
Student Internships and Experiences at XQ Schools Across the Country
Other XQ schools are also working with local companies and nonprofit organizations that offer paid internships for students. Furr High School in Houston this summer arranged paid internships for 19 students that align with the school’s social justice and environmental mission.
Brooklyn Lab and Washington Leadership Academy, among other schools, are also working to place students in paid internships. Washington Leadership Academy has already seen several students turn their academic internships into paid consulting opportunities. Summit Shasta also makes internships a cornerstone of its school design, and some students have won paying jobs through that program.
Kibos Buscovich, director of community partnerships at Latitude 37.8 High in Oakland, is working with local companies in hopes of providing internship-to-career pathways for students in the future.
Students at Latitude already spend much of their time in the community, interviewing local “change-makers,” visiting workplaces, and meeting community leaders. They research local issues, such as how the pandemic is affecting homeless people, and work with nonprofits such as Lava Mae on possible solutions.
But lining up paid internships is only one part of the effort to prepare students for the world beyond high school, Buscovich said. Latitude is also planning to teach financial literacy and basic job skills, like how to write a resume and build social capital.
“We know our students deeply, and one thing they say is they feel often unprepared for the world,” Buscovich said. “We want to give them real-life experiences, so they can see with their own eyes what different industries are like, what the workplace is like. It’s a way to demystify the adult world.”
See our complete guide from a college student on how high school students can get internships.
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