If you were to look around a room filled with Pierce County CEOs, executive directors, and business leaders, you might find that — unlike the community they are representing — there isn’t a lot of diversity. The new Seed Internship Program is looking to fix that. 

Tacoma-based nonprofit Degrees of Change historically has focused on college preparedness and success, but its newest offering, the Seed Internship Program, shifts emphasis to developing community leadership by placing promising local college students into internships with local businesses.

“We think communities are more likely to thrive and be healthy, vibrant, equitable, and just places when the full diversity of the community has access to education and the connections that put that education to work,” said Tim Herron, president of Degrees of Change.

The goal is simple: Target underrepresented populations, and connect them with local employment opportunities. Any current college student over 18 years old who lives in, or has graduated from a high school in, Pierce County can apply, although the program is geared toward first-generation students, students of color, low-income students, and others who may lack the professional network or resources to land a competitive internship. 

All participating businesses must be located within county borders.

“We want to find businesses that are interested in finding local talent, and we want to find college students that are interested in coming home to Tacoma-Pierce County over the summer,” said Andrew Whitney, career programs director for Degrees of Change. 

This model is based off a similar program developed by Degrees of Change partner Portland Leadership Foundation. The Portland program, Emerging Leaders, was launched five years ago and has grown to place 120 interns across 80 employers.

Seed’s first year, with Emerging Leaders as an example, looks promising for similar expansion. Out of the 145 students who applied for the internship program, 67 percent were students of color, 60 percent were first-generation students, and 87 percent were applying for their first paid internship.

Courtesy Degrees of Change

Another element that sets this internship program apart, Whitney added, is the professional-development workshops he hosts for participants every Friday. That, and the fact that interns are guaranteed to be paid by their employers — businesses agree to compensate interns a minimum of $15 per hour when they sign on with the program — addressing an equity gap that underrepresented students often face when attempting to gain professional experience but can’t afford to not be compensated for their time.

One of the businesses that has benefitted from the program’s internship network is Downtown On the Go, a local nonprofit dedicated to offering alternative transportation options to residents of downtown Tacoma.

“What made me really excited about the Seed Internship Program is their mission to grow and harness leadership in the Puget Sound,” said Downtown On the Go coordinator Hally Bert. “So much of our work is community-centered, so we were excited to get on board with that at the ground level.”

After a thorough vetting, Bert selected Michelle John, a rising senior at Pacific Lutheran University majoring in social work and minoring in sociology and nonprofit leadership.

John said her position with Downtown On the Go is “not your typical summer job” — rather it was a role that truly offered growth and allowed her to make professional strides prior to graduation.

“I plan to stick around and maintain and build these relationships,” John said. “I want to see Tacoma continue in the right direction. It’s really exciting to watch that process happen and be a part of it.”

The inaugural internship program has been a proof of concept, according to Herron. “This model that we’ve seen thrive in Portland, it works here,” he said. “We’ve built it all out, and we’ve built it in a way that it can scale up.”

Nine local businesses hosted 15 interns in summer 2019, and the preparatory work to expand in the second year currently is in motion for 2020. For additional information about the program, visit seedinternships.org.