For many young people, summer internships aren’t just about a paycheck. They’re a path to acquiring job skills that can lead to permanent employment, a chance to gain exposure to the working world, and a way to earn the kind of credentials that open doors to the financial mainstream.
For 13 years, Boston-based insurer John Hancock has sponsored the summer employment of more than 600 local teens at its home office, and at nonprofits across the city. Grants supporting student earnings currently total around $1 million. Its MLK Scholars Program—the largest summer jobs program of its kind in the United States—boosts the value proposition with leadership forums and financial literacy training.
This summer, however, was quite unlike any other. To ensure the program could persist against the backdrop of a raging pandemic, the program’s partners had to take the program online, and engage personally only as safety allowed.
Through the program, teens either learn the ropes at John Hancock itself, or at more than 50 local organizations, including the Boston Debate League, which helps students develop critical thinking skills, the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Museum of African American History, and the Calculus Project, a grassroots effort to increase the number of students of color who complete high school AP Calculus.
Partners like the Boston Globe, Boston University, Mass General and the City of Boston ensure the whole city’s involved. And each year, some of the students take on leadership roles to make sure the internships are meaningful and productive. All in, more than 5,000 MLK Scholars have cycled through the program, developing a diverse pipeline of candidates for employers, and economically empowering Boston’s youth.
As the world changed, the partners didn’t waiver in their commitment to summer programming. Marianne Harrison, John Hancock’s president and CEO, says expanding economic opportunity and fostering a healthier, more equitable community is particularly critical now, in a period of racial justice protests and the economic fallout from COVID-19. “One thing’s abundantly clear: We have a lot of work to do to combat systemic racism that affects the lives of many innocent people.”
Saying the city’s youth needed the program’s connections now more than ever, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh commended MLK Scholar’s many partners for “stepping up in new and creative ways to meet this year’s unique challenges.”
Moving ahead meant pivoting from past programs: advancing the planning process, encouraging virtual programming, equipping students with the necessary technology, and finding flexible ways of building student connections.
Early on, John Hancock encouraged participants to plan on going virtual. Like many COVID-era decisions, the hope was to incorporate in-person programming down the line, as data on number of cases allowed. As summer’s progressed, virtual participation ruled, and has included a mix of project-based assignments, independent work, and live workshops conducted on platforms like Zoom.
Scholars at a teen empowerment group are mobilizing virtual events as youth organizers, for instance. And students assigned to a community services nonprofit are leading virtual design challenges for other youth along multiple tracks. The 35 scholars who would have normally been working on site in John Hancock’s Boston office transitioned to a fully remote experience, splitting time between business support and professional development workshops.
As for arming scholars with the tools they need to succeed, many participants were able to hold on to the Chromebooks the Boston Public Schools issued them in March to support virtual learning. To bridge any gaps on hardware, software, internet connectivity, and capacity building, John Hancock created an emergency grant program for nonprofit partners hosting MLK Scholars.
In-person networking may not have been viable this summer. But at least a few of the scholars will get a second chance to enjoy personal connections one day. Each year, a percentage of MLK Scholars alumni graduate to the company’s college-level internship program. The foundation enjoys seeing scholars return to nonprofits in subsequent summers, working as MLK program coordinators. And that shiny goal of a full-time job is at least a reality for some. Annie Duong-Turner, a former MLK Scholar, is now part of John Hancock’s Corporate Responsibility team, leading the program.