Recognizing the Value of Internships

After my first year of college, I was fortunate enough to score an internship on Capitol Hill, working in the office of a respected veteran senator. For a month, I did everything and anything that was asked of me, as I tried to soak up as much of the experience as possible. For me, each committee hearing, legislative memo, and clip packet were like gifts on Christmas morning.

As part of my internship, I also got the privilege of commuting by train – more than an hour each way – from my parents’ home in West Virginia. It was the only way to make my first internship work financially. Additionally, I spent the rest of the summer, as well as every weekend during my internship month, working at a local restaurant. I was gaining valuable work experience walking the halls of Congress. And I was gaining the dollars necessary to live during college by ringing up buffet dinners for Mountain State families and breaking down the soft-serve ice cream machine nightly.

The following summer, I was fortunate enough to earn an internship in the press office of U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. That was the summer I retired from my career at Ponderosa Steak House. Senator Byrd was a former Senate Majority Leader and was chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. A man who became one of the most powerful leaders in DC, Senator Byrd also believed in an honest day’s pay for a hard day’s work. I interned for Byrd for two summers, getting paid a salary both years.

I continued to take the train in from West Virginia both of those summers, to save money and avoid the cost of DC summer rent, but I was able to spend those summers focused on my future. The train rides became opportunities to read about government and policy. The weekends became a chance to explore possible career paths beyond law school. Those paid internships with Senator Byrd transformed me into the communications and policy professional I would become.

All because of a paycheck attached to an invaluable internship.

Last month, the U.S. Senate appropriated $5 million to provide the resources to pay Senate interns, giving each Senate office about $50,000 a year to compensate the lifeblood of Capitol Hill. The funds will hardly ensure that interns earn anything to close to what those interning on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley may earn, what with some Hill offices employing more than a dozen interns in the summer months alone to share that pot. But it is a start.

It is a start in showing appreciation for those that perform the tasks of Capitol Hill interns, perhaps allowing interns the chance to take one fewer shift as a waiter or bartender in DC and being able to use the time to explore the city they are calling home for the summer. It is a step at wiping away the general DC belief that interns are simply free labor, motivated by their need to find paying jobs after college.

More importantly, though, the move to compensate U.S. Senate interns begins to bring some equity to a system that is far from equitable. For decades, unpaid DC internships largely ensured an intern pool of the wealthy and the well connected. In an institution that is already far whiter than the populace, it ensured that its interns were equally as white. In short, it created a labor pool that looked vastly different from the people it was governing.

If the $50 million paid internship pool allows one more low-income student to pursue a Capitol Hill internship, then it is a worthy investment. If it inspired a new generation to see the value of government service, even if it pays far less than the private sector (both at internships and full-time jobs), then it is a worthy investment. If it means more 19- and 20-year olds don’t have to work two or three jobs during the summer in order to pursue its passions, then it is a worthy investment. And if it inspires other industries – including the media and entertainment sectors – to open their checkbooks and eliminate their own “free summer labor pool,” then it is definitely worth it.

No college student is ever going to get rich working an internship on Capitol Hill. Interns will still spend much of their salaries renting a summer dorm room from a local university or packing into short-term lease apartments. They will continue to live on an all-you-can-eat pizza, salad, and banana pudding buffet (as I did as an intern), supplemented by Capitol Hill reception hors d’oeuvres. And a small monthly check from the U.S. Senate ensures that those who seek such an experience may actually be able to take advantage of it.

(This piece originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Of Vocational Schools, Career Tech, and Learners

Years ago, I worked for an education entrepreneur who drilled in me the notion that American high schools were fundamentally broken, built for an era that was long gone. Today, we know that postsecondary education – in some form – is a non-negotiable. For one to have a successful career, to be able to take care of a family and keep a roof over their heads, a high school degree alone was no longer sufficient. High schools needed to become passageways to the successful pursuit of postsecondary education.

It wasn’t always this way. One can look back to the post-World War II era and see a time when only a third of high schoolers went on to college. A third of students graduated from high school to directly enter the workforce or pursue military service. And yes, a third would fail to earn a high school diploma, but still were able to obtain and keep employment.

Recently, President Donald J. Trump spoke longingly on those good ol’ days, noting how America’s future economic success may very well lie with a return to vocational schools. And while most do not use the term anymore, he may indeed be correct. It’s tough to deny that career and technical education is more important than ever. But it is careerteched that is vastly different than the shop class that President Trump may remember from high schools of decades past and is calling for. And it is at a time when we now look to community colleges to provide much of what those good ol’ voke ed schools used to offer.

It’s career and technical education that today is largely delivered by community colleges, either to recent high school graduates seeking that non-negotiable postsecondary education or to career changers needing to update their skills and knowledge to compete in a digital, information economy. It’s for those who recognize that the future economy demands a strong blend of all of the educational buzzwords we’ve heard over the past decade or two, whether it be STEM, 21st century skills, or the like.

It is also a reminder that the education offered and the students pursuing it are not nearly as homogenous as we’d like to believe. Sure, we all have this picture of the “typical” college student pursuing a “typical” liberal arts education at a “typical” four-year college. But there is nothing typical about students today, their aspirations, or the pathways one takes to get there. Nothing typical about the K-12 experience, and certainly nothing typical about the postsecondary experience.

I was reminded of this, yet again, this morning when watching Good Morning America. As a transition, Robin Roberts spoke briefly with student representatives from the Family, Career, and Community Leaders of America, or FCCLA. It was an organization that the edu-wife, the product of a private high school in New England, was completely unfamiliar with. And she works in education.

But as the product of Jefferson (County Consolidated) High School in Shenandoah Junction, West Virginia, I knew the organization well. Or rather I knew the organization as it once was known, the Future Homemakers of America. In my high school, FHA was a more popular student group than the Future Business Leaders of America. It was almost as strong a student organization as our Future Farmers of America contingent, which spent every fall missing classes to make apple butter out in the high school parking lot.

In my day, our county high school had about 1,200 students in total. About a third of our high school graduates went on to college. We weren’t a large enough school district to have a fully functioning vocational high school or career/technical education program. At the time, we didn’t even have a community college in our part of West Virginia (my father, when he was president of Shepherd University, actually created the community college that is now the state’s largest and most successful, to meet the growing demands).

So career and technical education was largely supported by clubs like FFA, FHA, and FBLA. Such organizations supplemented what was learned in the classroom. They provided much of the “vocational” training that President Trump now seeks, and did so largely because of teachers who were willing to give their time and knowledge to do so.

In the nearly three decades since I graduated from Jefferson High, those organizations have adjusted their approach and their services to their members. They’ve continued to serve as a gateway for so many seeking postsecondary career and technical education. And they’ve turned out generations of individuals with the skills, knowledge, and passions to pursue a wide range of careers.

When we debate the successes or failures of K-12 education, it is easy to get bogged down in test scores and growth measures. It is easy to focus on those learners who beat the odds to get accepted into a dozen Ivy League schools. And its easy to point out how much that used to fall to K-12, from remediation to career and technical ed, has now been pushed onto our local community colleges.

It is far harder for us to recognize, acknowledge, and celebrate the ways communities do come together to provide for their students. It harder to see the value in the student who will soon run his family’s farm also knowing how to code (and knowing the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare).

Preparing for a strong economic future does not mean needing to return to the bricks-and-mortar good ol’ days of voke ed. Instead, it means recognizing the importance of instilling a wide range of skills, knowledge, and ability with today’s learners, and recognizing that such lessons can – and should – be taught beyond the traditional classroom in the little red schoolhouse. And it means seeing how community colleges and clubs and OST programs can contribute.

(A version of this post also appeared on LinkedIn Pulse.)

Investing in the Future of #TeacherEd

As a community, we spend so much time thinking and talking about what the schools, classrooms, and students of tomorrow may look like, but we often overlook an essential component to the equation. What will the teacher education of the future look like, the educator prep necessary to ensure we have the classroom leaders for such future K-12 environments.

For the past four years, dear ol’ Eduflack has been privileged to be part of the development of the Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning, and initiative of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and MIT to completely reinvent teacher preparation and education schools in general.

Last week, the good folks over at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced their significant support for the WW Academy and its efforts. Benjamin Herold over at Education Week referenced it as CZI investing in “personalized learning for the whole educator.” Caitlin Reilly noted that “teaching K-12 is brutally hard” and this was one of the ways CZI was “offering support.”

No matter how one cuts it, I’m incredibly honored to be a very small piece of the initiative and to have the support of innovators like those at CZI. Chan Zuckerberg joins with notables such as the Bezos Family Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Amgen Foundation, Simons Foundation, and Nellie Mae Education Foundation in believing in the WW Academy’s mission of transforming the preparation of the nation’s teachers and school leaders.

 

I say it far too often, but change is hard. Changing systems is even harder. These organizations, and the many other partners who have joined with the WW Foundation and MIT in this effort, see that as an opportunity, not an obstacle.

The future of teacher education is now!

 

Trump’s Higher Ed State of the Union

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all know that the President of the United States rarely uses the State of the Union to focus on education issues. For every year that George W. Bush sought to ensure No Child Left Behind or Barack Obama looked for a Race to the Top, we’ve heard far more addresses where education is a passing mention at best.

A recent Politico poll found that 46 percent of Americans believe it is “very important” POTUS address education issues in tomorrow night’s address to Congress, while another 29 percent said was somewhat important. And while voters tend not to vote in national elections based on education issues, it is a good sign that Americans seem to want to elevate the rhetoric on topics of the classroom.

Over at BAM! Radio Network, dear ol’ Eduflack explored what a Trumpian address on K-12 education issues could look like. Highlighting the power of education to make America great again and expressing ire over other nations beating the U.S. of A on key international benchmarks, it isn’t a stretch to see how President Donald J. Trump could focus on elementary and secondary education issues.

But what could a focus on higher education look like? As rare as P-12 education is in the State of the Union, postsecondary education discussions are far rarer. By now, we all realize that Trump is hardly a politician of convention. So maybe it isn’t too late to drop this proposed section of “Trump-speak” into the address currently being finalized.

My election in 2016 was a sign that the American people were deeply concerned with their jobs, pocketbooks, and families. Voters rallied around the notion of ‘making America great again,’ recognizing that the strongest way we can make America great is by ensuring all of her people have well-paying jobs, both today and tomorrow.

Recently passes tax cuts are already having a direct impact on American works, as companies like Walmart and Disney and our leading banks are providing bonuses, incentives, and even college tuition assistance to their workers. So many of those businesses that are already rewarding their workers have one key thing in common. As companies, they have made the necessary adjustment to meet the needs of tomorrow. They have reimagined their businesses for the digital, Information Age in which we now all operate. These employees recognize the importance of workers with the knowledge and kills to do both the jobs of today AND of tomorrow. As a result, they will have huge successes under the new tax code.

It is time to bring that vision and that innovation to education, particularly to our colleges and universities. For the past year, Betsy DeVos and her team have been grappling with issues such as growing college tuition and the financial operating structures of individual universities. In communities across the country, colleges are shutting down because they lack the students and the impact they once had. All of this demonstrates a higher education system that is largely broken.

Unlike our businesses, higher education is still largely focused on process, not on outcomes. It rewards based on past achievement, not on future success. It prioritizes the needs and preferences of the provider, not the learner or customer.

That is why tonight I am directing my Education Department to chart a new course for postsecondary education in the United States, a course that takes us to our next destination, not our previous stops. We need to build them schools of tomorrow, preparing the workers of tomorrow with the skills of tomorrow for the jobs of tomorrow.

What does that mean?

First, we need to incentivize, not discourage, innovation in higher education. Just because a program or a school is doing things in a way that has never been done does not mean it should be prevented from doing so. That means empowering regulators and accreditors to encourage new models of thinking and instruction.

Second, we need to better understand the students of today – and tomorrow – while ensuring our institutions of higher learning are meeting their needs. The demographics of college students today are vastly different than those from a generation ago. How we teach those learners must also be different.

That requires a more personalized approach to college education. It is time to throw out the lecture halls and blue books. Instead, we look to advances like artificial intelligence, simulations, and virtual reality to help students learn in the ways that make the most sense to them. And we look for what students know and what they are able to do with that knowledge.

And finally, we need to ensure that classroom instruction meets real-world needs. That requires equipping every young learner today with the STEM skills needed to succeed in the jobs of tomorrow. And that requires forward-thinking classroom teachers able to teach those STEM skills in ways that are both relevant and interesting to today’s kids.

Across this great country, families are seeking a better life for their kids. In the 1950s, hardworking Americans sought the same, determining that sending their kids to college was the best path to that better life. In recent years, we have lost that sense of trust, seeing higher education instead as a playground for dilettantes and those without life direction. No more.

My Administration is committed to restoring American higher education to a position of greatness around the work. That is only done through innovation and an embrace of what is possible. It is done by breaking the restraints of over-regulation. And it is done by recognizing the future direction of higher education belongs not to the learner, not just to the provider. Only then can our colleges and universities become great again.

Imagine some applause lines like that in the 2018 SOTU.

Requiring Internships at College

Earlier this month, Gallup published a fascinating piece on why college should make internships a requirement. Noting that Gallup data shows that parents, students, and the public believe the top reason for higher education is to get a good job, reflecting on the fact that only about a quarter of students (27 percent) had a good job waiting for them after earning a bachelor’s degree, and determining that almost another 25 percent had to wait at least six months (6 percent waiting seven to 12 months and 16 percent waiting at least a year) before finding said good job, Gallup’s authors could come to only one conclusion. Gallup’s Brandon Busteed and Zac Auter determined that internships were key for student success, and it was up to colleges and universities to ensure it.

More specifically, Busteen and Auter noted:

the truth is, higher education institutions and accreditors are out of sync with what the public and students want most from a college degree. And nothing will improve this more than this one step: Making an internship — where students can apply what they are learning in a real-world work situation — a requirement to graduate.

I’ll admit, dear ol’ Eduflack gets into more than his share of rhetorical skirmishes regarding the ultimate goals of higher education. I appreciate those that believe the purpose of college is to instill a greater sense of learning and an appreciation for thought in those that pursue it. I’ll even acknowledge the points so many make, that studying the classics or a dead language or something of that ilk can make one a better person and a better citizen.

But it is equally hard for me to wrap my hands around someone taking out $100k in student loans to be the most well-read barista at the local Starbucks. I can appreciate the value of the liberal arts, but don’t possess the rose-colored classes that come with it that require one to believe the pursuit of such liberal arts are the key to a happy and profitable life, one that ensures food on the table and a roof over the head of the family for decades to come.

Confession time. I am the product of a liberal arts education. I spent four years at Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville. I majored in two fields. The first was government (not even political science, but the foundations of American government, foreign affairs, and political theory). The second was rhetoric and communications studies, a degree no longer available at U.Va. I was part of the last graduating class with RCS majors, as the university abandoned our pursuits of Aristotle and Machiavelli and the foundations of rhetoric itself and replaced it with the more practical communications that can be found at any university, where one can study TV 101.

I learned an incredible amount in both my majors, particularly in RCS. One of the first floor speeches I ever wrote for a member of the U.S. Senate was tracking the history of Independence Day here in the United States back to the early teachings of Aristotle. As delivered, the speech was more than an hour long. All because of liberal arts education from the University of Virginia.

But while I confess, I must also admit that I am not a fool. Even as I was graduating from U.Va., I was rarely asked what my college major was or even what my GPA might be. My experience at Mr. Jefferson’s University – and my perceived successes there – were shaped by two factors, factors that happened well outside the traditional arts and sciences classroom.

The first was the four years I spent at The Cavalier Daily, an independent student newspaper that provided no pay and no college credit for its journalists. As managing editor of The CD, I worked more than 100 hours a week supervising a volunteer staff of 150 and putting out a 16-page broadsheet newspaper five times a week. I was 21 years old. No college class prepared me for that experience, and no course could ever have captured all that was taught and learned.

The second was three summers of interning on Capitol Hill. A course during my first year in college led to a general legislative internship with my U.S. senator before my second year of college. I was bitten by the political bug during that month-long stint in DC. The following summer, I earned a three-month internship working in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s (WV) press office. I repeated the experience the summer before my final year of college. Those three summers then led to a job offer on Capitol Hill, an offer that let me shelve plans for law school for, oh, going on 23 years now.

These experiences taught me about writing and critical thinking and management. They helped me learn to multitask. They forced me to question authority and push myself way beyond any comfort zones. They turned me into the professional I am today, equipping me with all of the 21st century skills, social and emotional learning, and other such attributes we eagerly seek in the professional world today.

I wasn’t required to do any of these things. My college degree did not change because of them (though I may have attended a few more actual classes if I wasn’t spending so much time at the college paper all of those years). But had I not taken those internships or worked for a newspaper, I would never have had the skills and abilities necessary to pursue the career path I’m on today. No question about it.

We like to tell high school students that the best way to prepare them for postsecondary education is to have them take dual-enrollment courses while still in high school, demonstrating that they are capable of doing college-level work. We should be doing the same for college students. The only way to demonstrate they are capable of performing in the professional work is by having them experience it as interns.

There is nothing wrong with using the college years to study dead languages, obscure poets, or unproven political theories. But at some point, those studies have to be applied to the real world, where students can see how their postsecondary experiences can be applied to their post-college worlds. That happens in an internship, not in a college classroom.

 

College Degree … or Work Skills?

A decade ago, President Obama declared a nations, goal of having the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. This month, EdSec Betsy DeVos called for a renewed focus on career education and workforce training.

Now before we condemn DeVos for somehow being anti-education, we need to consider that she may indeed be correct. A liberal arts education may have value for the soul, but it can be just as important to some to pursue an education that guarantees one can support a family and pay the mortgage.

We explore the topic on the latest edition of #TrumpED on the BAM! Radio Network. Give it a listen.

What I Learned While Lecturing At College

There is something rejuvenating about speaking on college campuses, particularly when it offers the opportunity to reflect on your profession and your career choices. In our day-to-day world, we can often lose sight of why we do what we do, letting the frustrations of the day get in the way of the successes of the career.

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak with students at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri about strategic communications. Heading in, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve spoken at public and private universities. I’ve presented at Ivy League institutions and community colleges. At HBCUs and foreign universities. Each one is different, each comes with its own set of questions and its own frames of discussion.

Over the years, I’ve learned I’m an effective storyteller. Anyone in the communications profession can go onto a college campus and describe what their job is like. Speakers can approach such scenarios as if they are going in for a first round job interview or talking to someone at a cocktail party that they will never see again. They can provide a “just the facts” approach, as if they are describing the work to a crime scene investigator. Me, I prefer to tell old war stories.

It’s easy to get someone’s attention when you are able to talk about defending bomb-detecting dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy or flacking for a company that allegedly employed paramilitary death squads or managing an “angel of death” scenario at a local hospital or doing rhetorical battle with a brand name like Bill O’Reilly. Such tales make a communications job seem glamorous, taking away from those countless days and years in a cubicle cold-calling reporters and begging them to attend an event or review a release or the reams of paper and the countless drafts before a commentary meets the approval of the cast of thousands who may need to OK it.

Such stories, though, can often be the easy way out. It is one-way communication, with the storyteller (me) simply informing my audience. Even when one opens it up for questions, those answers are often simply more stories, or the expansion of the existing ones.

But in my discussion at Southwest Baptist University, I found a different discussion. Yes, the tales were entertaining (at least I thought so, but I’ve heard them all before). But the questions asked of me were illuminating. I was forced to go into my personal recesses and find answers to questions I haven’t asked myself in a long time. And in a few instances, explore some topics I have never consciously explored as a communications professional.

These were questions like:

  • What are the similarities in working in communications in fields like politics, government, healthcare, education? What are the differences?
  • Compare working in the private sector with working in the public sector? Working for for-profits versus not-for-profits? Which is better for a young professional? Why?
  • Is it better to be a communications generalist today or to specialize in a specific skill, like social media?
  • How does one measure the success, or failure, of communications initiatives? How do you know when you are doing it right?
  • How do you find the voice of your boss or your client?
  • I found that last question of particular interest and intrigue. I’ve been fortunate to be an on-the-record spokesman for more than two decades. I’ve also ghost written hundreds of commentaries for individuals over that time. In all of those years, I’m not sure I had ever thought about HOW to find that voice, I just did it.

When I worked for Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, I got there by watching his floor speeches and trying to parrot them. With Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, it was by reading his basketball memoir, Life on the Run. With the African-American national not-for-profit leader, it was from speaking one-on-one with him. With the former college president, it was from watching him speak to small groups. While each experience was different, each also shared a common thread. It was about finding voice in the setting where the speaker was most comfortable, most him or herself.

These were the sorts of questions that my 22-year-old self would never have known to ask. Heck, these are questions that my 30-year-old self wouldn’t have asked either. But these students were not just hearing the stories, but they were listening to them. And they were trying to distill these tales into useable lessons that would help them secure the jobs they sought and enter the careers they dreamed of.

At the same time, they reminded me of why I do what I do, what drew me to it, and what brings me the joy that keeps me from chucking it all and opening that cupcake shop on Grand Cayman. In teaching last week, I learned – or re-learned – a great deal.

(The above was also published in LinkedIn Pulse.)