By Robin Levi, SRA Advisor
I first learned about Students Rising Above (SRA) in October of 2011. I had been a women’s human rights attorney for almost twenty years and had just finished co-editing Inside this Place, Not of It: Oral Narratives from Women’s Prisons with Ayelet Waldman. At the book launch for Inside this Place, Lauren Brener, SRA’s Intern Coordinator ran up to me and said that my organization, Justice Now, would be a perfect place for SRA students. Boy was she right! Every time a resume arrived, I ran out of my office to tell everyone how awesome the applicant was. The students were equally impressive at the interview stage. They were so professional and at the same time warm and genuine. If anything, they were too modest. There were a few times that I stopped the interview to tell them, “don’t forget this, this is awesome.” They were also great about follow up and thank yous. At one point, our client coordinator, who does the final hiring, asked, “Can I be lazy and just hire SRA students?” Each student that I interviewed was a breath of fresh energy and knowledge.
If we could have, we would have hired all of them. We ended up hiring two SRA student interns for summer 2012; we tried to hire three, but the third was unable to make our training week because of a school conflict. One student worked on child custody issues and the other worked on communications and legislative advocacy. Both students had close family members who had been imprisoned. Justice Now always want to hire people who have personal experience with the prison system, but too often they do not have the necessary skills to work at a legal office and require more support and supervision than Justice Now can provide. Here the opposite was true. Not only were they professional, productive, and eager to learn, they also had a strong desire to give back and support other interns. They interviewed women in prison, answered telephone calls, responded to letters on legal issues, and they helped fellow interns. In particular, one student worked until 11 pm several nights helping a young woman who had recently come home from prison with job applications. The other student spearheaded a fundraising campaign with people inside prison.
Now it’s true that they weren’t perfect interns (news flash…no one is), but we found that they responded really well to positive criticism and advice. Justice Now staff loved both of them so much that at Board meetings their names regularly come up as people that they would like to have back. And trust me that is not true for all interns.
My introduction to SRA came at a perfect time for me. After finishing my book and working with women in prison for almost twenty years, I was ready to come at generational poverty from a different angle. I left my job and went to work for SRA as a Student Advisor. I started with 7 high school seniors, who I will work with until they graduate college. I provide them guidance on college and life, help them trouble-shoot problems, and make sure they take advantage of all that college and SRA has to offer. After having worked with students for a year and then being part of the application process for the new class of SRA students, it amazes me how accomplished and positive these students are despite coming from incredibly difficult backgrounds. They struggle with homelessness, hunger, physical and sexual abuse, and deep familial dysfunction including substance abuse and mental illness. And those are just a few examples. Yet through all that, these students not only are academic high achievers, they also maintain fabulous attitudes and eagerness to learn and improve. I now know that they often have commutes of up to two hours or more, using a wide variety of public transportation and that in many cases, they have not had the opportunity to learn the importance of responding quickly to email, eye contact and general socialization. But they learn and then they show up at work with their happy, shiny faces and make their offices better places. They are ready to be the change in their own lives and in their communities.
Justice Now hired two more SRA students as interns this summer. Although I am no longer on staff, as a Board member I get plenty of information and these students have not disappointed, they are just as great as last year’s interns. I have urged many of my friends to take on SRA interns, at both corporations and nonprofits, and they all have been extremely pleased with results.
I see in my own students those same attributes as in the Justice Now interns and I know that they will be great college students, interns and eventually employees and community members. In fact, I was talking about one of my students to Justice Now’s client coordinator and she asked, “Do you think she would want to intern here in..oh…2 or so years?”