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Benefits of Connections and Internships Live On, No Matter the Format

Monday, January 25, 2021

When Larry Barr and Amy Gilbertson attended a Speed Networking event at Taubman College in fall 2019 in order to connect with young professionals, they had no idea that the following summer would bring so much change and uncertainty. For many organizations, COVID-19 had other plans for regularly scheduled internship programs.

Just after they went remote, Quinn Evans, where Barr is president, had to move quickly to assess and reassess the pandemic’s impact on the interns they planned to bring on board in just a few months. “On Friday, we cancelled our internship program, and the following Monday we decided to restart the program virtually in a cohort-style feel,” said Barr, B.S. ’80, M.Arch ’82.

As plans for internships shifted, each firm adapted to a virtual format. “We didn’t want to lose a year of building connections with interns and graduates,” said Gilbertson, M.Arch ’01, principal at Trivers Associates. “They always bring a new energy and perspective that the whole team looks forward to.”

To help fit their talent needs, the alumni looked back to those students they had met at the fast-paced networking event the fall prior. Speed Networking brought students and alumni together in a rapid, speed-dating-like meet-and-greet session, where students had roughly five minutes to chat with each alumnus before being whisked to the next.

Student participants Charlene Hobbs and Michael Werkmeister had no idea of what to expect from the event. But ultimately, their respective connections to Barr and Gilbertson helped change the course of the summer.

Hobbs, who had already connected with other alumni of Quinn Evans through the local chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), was able to talk directly with Barr about his experience working at the firm.

“Larry made me feel confident and valued,” she said about the conversation they had during and after the event.

For Werkmeister, the surprise of seeing an alumna from his hometown was almost too perfect. ”She mentioned that Trivers is located in St. Louis and said she moved there after graduating from the University of Michigan,” he said of meeting Gilbertson.

“It was exciting because this gave me a connection back home with someone I could relate to.”

While Werkmeister was happy to know the alumni network stretched to his city, Gilbertson said employers benefit from these encounters, too: “U-M students could go anywhere when they get done with school, so the more awareness we can build about our firm, the better chances we have at finding people who are interested in the work we do.”

Pandemic Internships

While COVID-19 meant it wasn’t business as usual for summer internships, it also created unique opportunities for students like Hobbs and Werkmeister.

Quinn Evans’ cohort-style, virtual internship program helped build community amongst a group of young professionals from all over the country. “Bringing all of the interns together into one large cohort allowed for an opportunity we’ve never had before,” said Barr. Instead of interns only working with professionals and fellow interns in their regional office, they were able to harness the virtual nature of the internship to bring everyone together.

The cohesiveness of the virtual model “provided a shared professional development within the cohort interns,” said Hobbs.

It also provided additional support during a difficult summer.

Hobbs was able to create a group chat among Black women and women of color, composed of interns and professionals within the organization. Having the support system was critical, Hobbs said: “I was able to have such vulnerable conversations with people who could say, ‘I’ve been there, I know what you’re feeling, and I know what you’re going through.’”

At Trivers, the virtual internship experience laid the groundwork for Werkmeister’s ongoing relationship with the firm. After the summer was over, he was hired to work with the firm over the winter break between semesters, and he will continue to work remotely part-time this semester after returning to Ann Arbor. 

Werkmeister and Hobbs both expressed gratitude for the investment their alumni mentors made in their professional success, including by continuing the internship program during a most unusual summer. “Architects and planners really do want to help make people’s lives better, and it speaks to our alumni’s willingness to help this next generation of professionals,” Werkmeister said.

Taubman College alumni are thrilled to do so. 

“People helped me along the way, so it’s important to give back and help others in their process,” said Barr.

Gilbertson noted that even a small time commitment to interact with current students can make a huge difference. And beyond bringing new talent to their organization, alumni will find it personally invigorating, as well.

“It’s energizing for me to do something different than my normal day, to talk to students who are excited and uncertain about their future, and to see them be relieved about being able to get some basic questions answered that they might normally be afraid to ask.”

For alumni looking to connect with students, be sure to join the Taubman College Career Network To receive a bi-annual newsletter about recruiting events or hiring Taubman College students, contact taubmancollegecareer@umich.edu.

— Holly Naveh

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