Investing in Potential: A First-Generation Student Internship Program

Thea J. Smekens, Ohio Wesleyan University / The Center / February 23, 2024

Ohio Wesleyan University first-gen logo

 In my inaugural role as Director of First-Generation Student Success at Ohio Wesleyan University, I've had the privilege of recognizing incredible potential in our first-generation student population. First-generation students bring diverse perspectives, resilience, and a strong work ethic to our campus community. It’s no secret that for many first-generation students, juggling academics with a job is not a choice, but a necessity. For first-generation students, internship opportunities unlock doors that might otherwise remain closed. Internships provide first-generation students with the confidence, connections, and real-world context they need to thrive in their chosen careers, leveling the playing field and empowering them to achieve their full potential. That's why I'm excited to share the evolution of the Bishop Elevate First-Generation Internship Program, an initiative designed to bridge the gap between academics and real-world experience.


When I arrived at Ohio Wesleyan University in June 2023, a pre-existing first-generation internship program had been dormant for roughly a year. I had an opportunity to reimagine the program, and in October 2023, launched a redesigned version for Spring 2024 with a renewed focus on skill development and mentorship. For Spring 2024, a cohort of 14 first-generation student interns were placed in 1-semester micro-internship experiences across campus departments. These short-term, project-focused experiences allow students to gain valuable hands-on skills while balancing their academic commitments. For the 2024-2025 academic year, first-generation students will have the opportunity to apply for year-long internship opportunities.

The Bishop Elevate First-Generation Internship Program is funded by generous donations from alumni and a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation. This internship program makes it possible for offices and departments facing budget constraints to create valuable internship experiences for first-generation students. The program’s primary goal is to create pathways for first-generation students to access internship and research opportunities both within the campus community and beyond. Faculty and staff who wish to work directly with first-generation student interns submit proposals for internship positions and serve as supervisors and mentors. These internship experiences offer meaningful work and substantial project involvement that goes beyond tasks typically assigned to work-study positions. The program provides a comprehensive support system to ensure their success, with elements like tailored programs and workshops, a professional dress stipend, and networking opportunities.

The initial feedback from students and supervisors has been positive. Amarilys Torres-Nunez, a junior double-majoring in Sociology and Anthropology (SOAN) and Zoology, is a first-generation intern, serving as First-Gen Program Coordinator for Bishop Elevate. In her role, Amarilys fosters community and a strong spirit of resiliency within the first-generation community at Ohio Wesleyan University.

My internship experience is specifically tailored toward me and helps me build a deeper connection to the community and my own identity as a first-generation student. It’s helped me build a sense of belonging on campus. Because of my internship experience, I have a more clear vision of my career path, all while helping other first-generation students feel connected and empowered.

Through the Bishop Elevate First-Generation Internship Program, we hope to see increased confidence, stronger skill development, and a growing sense of community among our first-generation student interns. As we move forward, we're committed to expanding the program and offering more internship opportunities. Having an internship program exclusively for first-generation students highlights our commitment to recognizing and supporting first-generation students not just as a demographic, but as individuals with unique strengths and talents, deserving of tailored opportunities and resources to bridge the gap to career success.

Reimagining this internship program in my first semester on the job wouldn't have been possible without the support network I’ve found at Ohio Wesleyan University. From colleagues across campus who championed the initiative and offered invaluable insights, to the faculty and staff who created meaningful internship positions, the collective spirit made this redesign a reality. As a one-person office, I'm incredibly grateful for this spirit of collaboration and shared commitment to empowering and supporting first-generation students.

For more information on Ohio Wesleyan University's approach, please visit their website here.