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Internships Provide Hometown Professional Experiences During Pandemic

The air was cool late last fall when Fernando Fuentes and Naja Garrett each received an email that helped them solidify their summer plans. They were surprised to see their respective home towns of Del Rio and Beaumont listed as participants in the Home to Texas internship program. Jump ahead to six months later and the world looked a lot different in the spring of 2020, but their plans were still intact. Both students spent their summers gaining professional experience and insight into their college major choices in the middle of a global pandemic.

Though he wasn’t sure what he wanted to pursue in college, Fuentes chose to leave his South Texas home town to attend The University of Texas at Austin in part because of the opportunities available in Austin during and after college. “I knew that whatever I decided to pursue there are a lot of options in Austin,” Fuentes said. “When I saw that the email mentioned internships in Del Rio, it caught my interest because no one from Del Rio who goes off to another big city or a big college expects to have any opportunity in small cities like these, which is one of the things the program tries to address.”

If the summer had gone as planned, Fuentes was supposed to work at the Texas Community Bank in Del Rio in a customer outreach program and help lead their financial literacy camp for teens, but that all changed with the pandemic. Instead, he ended up working in a much more hands-on role at the bank as a teller and a financial services representative where he helped people open new accounts, replace lost or stolen debit cards, and cashed stimulus checks and Paycheck Protection Program loans.

“This situation has only made me appreciate banking more,” Fuentes said. “I knew it was important, but I didn’t necessarily see it as essential. During a pandemic, banking is absolutely an essential service and shouldn’t be taken away under any circumstance.”

Fuentes knew in the spring that he wanted to transfer from UT’s School of Undergraduate Studies into the McCombs School of Business. He was considering a major in management after taking the Signature Course “Crises and Regulations” taught by McCombs professor Stathis Tompaidis. However, after working with the Texas Community Bank over the summer, he is now set on majoring in finance.

Working at the bank gave him a new perspective on his hometown. As a teller, he interacted with people he grew up with. He was serving members of his community in a time when they needed it most. His experience showed him how finance directly affects people’s lives and strengthened his decision to choose finance as his major.

Naja Garrett, a mathematics sophomore from Silsbee, Texas, about 20 miles north of Beaumont, spent her summer with the Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce even though she was a little hesitant at the beginning. “When I first came in, I didn’t even really know what a chamber did, honestly,” she said.

When she showed up to work, the organization wasn’t sure what Garrett would be assigned to do over the summer. “My supervisor said, ‘We had so much planned, but times like this just squash plans.’” Her main job became assisting with the reconfiguration of events scheduled throughout the summer. Most of the chamber’s in-person events were adapted to be held virtually, while a small number took place with social distancing protocols.

Garrett decided to major in mathematics during the spring semester and was able to put some of those skills to use analyzing the city’s economic data and the chamber’s budgets. She also gained insight into the area’s economic development. In July, a company met with the Chamber to discuss the possibility of bringing a call center to Beaumont. Garrett sat in on the meeting and was able to suggest some ideas. The company called at the end of the month to finalize their plans to build the call center in Beaumont, and Garrett realized she had contributed to a successful collaboration.

Though the summer looked uncertain at the start, Garrett left the program with a new set of communication skills and practice with adaptability that will bolster her fall semester as she takes all of her classes online.

About the Program

Home to Texas is a summer internship program developed through a collaboration between the IC² Institute and the School of Undergraduate Studies that provides undergraduates at The University of Texas at Austin with a chance to work in their hometowns and learn about the core values of their communities. The program enlists the help of Texas Exes to identify internship opportunities. In addition to the paid internships, students engage in interviews and discussions with community, business, and government leaders to learn about the places where they grew up.

The summer of 2020 saw about 50 placements for students in communities all across Texas, from the Brownsville and Del Rio areas on the border to communities in East Texas, the Panhandle, and Central Texas. The program was piloted in summer of 2019 with nine students interning in McAllen, Brenham, Amarillo, Kerrville.