Connecting Students to Experiences in Public Service: PKG Social Impact Internships at MIT

Blog Post
May 11, 2021

This story is part of PIT UNiverse, a monthly newsletter from PIT-UN that shares news and events from around the Network. Subscribe to PIT UNiverse here.

Few things are more important to building the public interest tech career pipeline than strong support for internships. On-the-job learning gives students the chance to put their skills to work solving real-world challenges, creates opportunities for long-term employment in PIT, and gives students a window into public sector roles that they may not have otherwise. Whether PIT interns go on to a career in public service or not, an early experience in PIT can inform their work in other contexts and make them better stewards of the public good wherever their career takes them.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)’s Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG) is the university’s center dedicated to connecting students to opportunities in public service—through coursework, fellowships, alt break, and more, as well as internships and employment. PKG’s Social Impact Internships & Employment program, which links MIT students to social impact internships with partnered organizations in the community, is a 2020 Network Challenge grantee.

The program focuses on opportunities across three core areas: health, climate change, and tech for social good, while supporting an overall theme of racial justice. And it has a track record of providing meaningful experiences—for the recent Fall + January internship period, 100% of students said they gained knowledge or skills that will help their careers, and 100% of partnered organizations indicated an interest in hosting more MIT interns.

PKG team members, including director Jill Bassett, assistant dean Alison Hynd, communications manager Halley Kamerkar, and program administrator Julie Uva, told PIT UNiverse that MIT students pursue social impact internships for a range of reasons, but many are still not looking for careers in public service due to low wages and a “perceived prestige differential.”

“We certainly have a subsection of students that are very passionate about public service,” they said, “but more often, we hear students say they are looking for opportunities to take the skills they are learning in the classroom and apply them to real-world problems. Many are interested in the concept of using their skills for social good, but aren’t sure what that looks like yet.”

By providing students with the chance to work on real-world problems and explore public interest work, the PKG team says they hope to expand students’ understanding of public service and get them interested in social or environmental issues regardless of where they end up beyond MIT.

Recent student placements include work with MassHealth (the Massachusetts Medicaid agency) using data science to recommend new COVID-19 testing sites for underserved communities, developing culturally relevant and relatable educational resources for BIPOC and low-income students at Almost Fun, supporting mobile apps that aid care for low-income children with disabilities at Kupenda for the Children, and more.

“Looking forward to the future, social impact will always be in my mind whatever career decision I decide to make,” said Nabil Khalil, ‘21, who found an internship with the Boston-area Local Enterprise Assistance Fund through PKG. “I think everybody should utilize their abilities and skills in doing any social impact related work they get the chance to do, because it matters.”

Ashley Ke, ‘24, worked with AccesSOS, which provides a mobile app that converts text to speech to allow Americans who can’t hear or speak the ability to make 911 calls. Ke said the internship encouraged her to think more about applying her skills to the world.

“Up until this point, my focus has been primarily learning and developing skills through classes,” Ke said. “Seeing that my skills can be applied and contribute to an organization working for social impact helps me reflect on what role I can play in being another factor of social change.”

Key to the program’s success, according to the PKG team, is finding out what kinds of opportunities interest students and finding community partners that can offer those opportunities while benefiting from MIT students’ skills. PKG worked with organizations to brainstorm how they could benefit from student involvement while providing interns a meaningful experience.

The team also pointed to the importance of getting feedback from students and partners. PKG checks in with individual students, as well as cohorts by industry and location, to work through challenges and hear about especially successful programs. With a wide range of opportunities on offer and high marks for student and employer satisfaction, PKG Social Impact Internships are an excellent model for creating successful PIT experiential learning opportunities. And the PKG team says they’re happy to speak with other schools looking to build similar programs! Find out more on their website.