Summer Links interns explore social change

Second-year student Nick Antos spent his summer teaching formerly incarcerated adults how to use a computer, write a resume and dress for a job interview. As an intern with St. Leonard’s Ministries, in Chicago’s West Loop, Antos said he learned firsthand just how difficult finding work could be for those who had been in prison.

“I met so many people who were so driven and so ready to be on a different course for their lives but were burdened by the question: ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’” Antos said. “I realized how much they continued to be seen as criminals.”

It’s an insight Antos said he never would have gained without his participation in Summer Links, a 10-week training and internship program sponsored by the University Community Service Center. The program introduces participants to social justice issues in Chicago, from immigration to housing to criminal justice, said Amy Chan, UCSC’s director. The intention is “to give students experiences that help them learn to effect change on issues they are passionate about,” Chan said.

This year, 30 Summer Links interns worked in a variety of settings—nonprofit, government and corporate social responsibility—and met twice a week for trainings, site visits and discussions with social justice leaders from across Chicago. The sessions “put their internship experiences into a broader context,” Chan said, exposing students to diverse viewpoints and helping them learn methodologies for addressing complex social change and justice issues.

Participants approached social change through a variety of lenses, from direct service to policy research. Third-year student Julia Epplin-Zapf worked with Gov. Pat Quinn’s office to determine which Illinois counties most need housing for people with disabilities—knowledge that will help target federal housing subsidies.

She also helped the Illinois Housing Development Authority tweak its bidding process to encourage developers to locate new buildings in high-demand areas. “Hopefully in the future there will be fewer developments in place where there’s no need,” she said.

Her supervisors were thrilled with her efforts. “We were like, ‘Do you have to go back to school?’” said Juanita Irizarry, who oversaw Epplin-Zapf’s internship. The two eventually worked out a way to keep Epplin-Zapf on as a volunteer during fall quarter.

Second-year student Cosette Hampton helped Aon Corporation evaluate its programs of community partnerships related to K-12 education. Hampton said her Summer Links experience opened her eyes to the realities of poverty and how it impacts children’s education in urban settings. “I saw how one issue literally affects all others,” she said. “How can you focus on your education if you are homeless?”

Hampton’s internship supervisor said her work of interviewing and documentation helped immensely. “This is a really well-run, well-supported, stellar program,” said Beth Gallagher, director of community involvement at Aon. “These are sharp, motivated people. I can’t wait to see what they are doing in a few years.”