By Barrett Seaman–
For 12 years now, dozens of high school students from throughout the Town of Greenburgh have taken advantage each year of an offer to intern for the town government, creating public service announcements and learning about local issues and local government—all done through talks by a variety of resident experts and officials. The program is open to any student interested.
Normally, they participate by commuting three days a week to Greenburgh Town Hall, but the coronavirus pandemic rendered that impossible. This summer, the six-week program has been conducted entirely by Zoom—in daily conferences and talks for the full group of 40-some interns as well as in smaller break-out sessions for teams assigned various projects.
“We thought that it would be difficult,” said Town Supervisor Paul Feiner, “but I think it’s been our most successful summer.”
One big reason for the success of this entirely virtual internship, said Town Clerk Judith Beville, who along with Feiner and Town Attorney Tim Lewis runs the program, is that these students, typically high school sophomores, juniors and seniors, are “computer savvy—Zoom savvy.” A former elementary school teacher herself, Beville allows that this has been one of those times when the teacher becomes the student, learning how to get the most out of the technology.
The internship is based on four pillars: communication, leadership development, teamwork and problem-solving. A staple of the program is the weekly creation of public service announcements (PSAs) around topics of interest, such as pedestrian safety, police-community relations and the need to wear masks during the pandemic. Recently, one of the ten participating college students who serve as mentors for the high school interns suggested a change of pace away from the video format. Instead, the various teams produced posters promoting participation in the 2020 Census, a major public service issue this year.
Each week, at least one guest speaker participates in a Zoom conference with the students. Participants this year include former WABC-TV “Eyewitness News” anchor Roz Abrams, former Newsweek writer and non-fiction author David Kaplan of Irvington, Dr. Edward Zuckerberg, a Dobbs Ferry dentist and father of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and for the program finale on August 12th, former Senator, Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“Not only do these guest speakers leave us interns with memorable and powerful presentations,” enthuses Cardinal Stepinac rising senior Kyle Shepherd, “they offer us once-in-a-lifetime connections and relationships.” Shepherd has made friends with Roz Abrams, who is currently helping him with an op-ed on police-community relations that he hopes to place, with her help, in a national publication.
Some interns acknowledge that the all-Zoom format can’t entirely replace the interpersonal aspects of face-to-face contact. Nandini Singh, who attends Edgemont High, says the virtual format has worked well but allows that “sometimes my camera will not work, or I’ll have to sign in through my phone instead of laptop.”
Taleen Postian is just happy “for the opportunity to learn more about local government while still quarantining to stay safe during COVID-19.” Her fellow intern Chloe Edwards, a rising senior at Irvington High School, thoroughly endorses the format. “I came into this program not knowing anybody and now going into the fifth week, I’ve met a ton of great people I think I’ll know for a long time.”
The interns agree that Zoom offers them an opportunity to practice soft skills. “I have realized that all of these skills are essential to have in order to be successful,” says Singh.
Noe Lebanidze, a rising junior at Binghamton University and one of the mentors, concludes, “I don’t think I would have known these people better than if I were in a physically close setting, leaving aside the fact I may have spent more time around then in a normal internship.” Several cite the small group working sessions as the best way to get to know each other.
The variety of the interns’ names alone attests to the veracity of Judith Beville’s observation that the program reflects “the cultural mosaic of Greenburgh.” That, she says, is the result of broad outreach around the Town to attract interns, word of mouth and a propensity towards public service. “Such careers,” says Beville, “have historically attracted diversity.”