US Cities Open Doors to Interns

St. Louis sets model program for urban minority youth to enter old-boy network

WHEN she was 11 years old, Sicily McClelland decided she wanted to be a lawyer. But until this summer, the St. Louis high school student had never met an attorney or been in a courtroom. Her only job experience was working after school at McDonald's.

Now Ms. McClelland is working at City Hall in St. Louis, splitting her time between the mayor's office and the city counselor's office. Along with filing and copying duties, she attends staff meetings and sits in on depositions. She has attended the swearing-in ceremony for a judge and even shook President Clinton's hand when he came to town recently.

``I never thought I'd be doing all this,'' McClelland says as she walks through the marbled halls of City Hall. ``It's amazing to go from McDonald's to the mayor's office.''

McClelland, who will be a senior at one of the city's all-black schools this fall, is one of 162 high school students in the St. Louis Summer Internship Program. Since founded here in 1992, the program has been replicated in more than 30 cities nationwide.

St. Louis attorney Thomas Hullverson conceived of the program just after the Los Angeles riots in May 1992. ``It occurred to me that the legal community ought to pitch in and provide summer work for young, economically disadvantaged youths,'' he says. Working with the St. Louis Public Schools and the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, Mr. Hullverson saw his idea put into action in just four weeks.

That summer, 52 high-schoolers spent eight weeks working at law firms and legal agencies in St. Louis. In the second year, the St. Louis program expanded to include 73 interns and was adopted by several other professions. This year, 162 interns are working in about 16 professions, including law, banking, architecture, health care, hotel management, and engineering.

About 90 percent of the St. Louis interns are minorities. Any high-schooler who lives in the city and will be a junior or senior the following fall is eligible to apply.

The interns earn about $5 an hour and are provided a professional uniform of khaki slacks or skirts, white shirts, and a blazer to wear to work each day.

``For many students, this is a world they have no prior exposure to,'' says Gladys Smith, the program administrator. ``Sometimes they have to learn that the workplace is not an extension of high school.''

Ms. Smith's office provides full-time support during the eight-week program. Supervisors at the work sites mail in weekly evaluation postcards so that program administrators are informed quickly if there is a problem.

``We run it like a small business,'' Smith says. ``Our product is our students. If we have a problem on a postcard, we are out there immediately. One of our selling points is that we will make sure that the high-schoolers do not disrupt the workplace. We don't want supervisors to have to spend an inordinate amount of time working with the students.''

The goal of the program is to expand employment opportunities beyond the traditional old-boy network, says Steven Cousins, co-chairman of the bar association's summer internship committee and a partner with the law firm Armstrong, Teasdale.

Although high-schoolers have worked at Armstrong, Teasdale in the past, this program is bringing in a new type of summer worker. ``Classically, this firm and other firms tend to draw upon the sons and daughters of lawyers within the firm and others who have access to this kind of milieu,'' Mr. Cousins says. ``We're simply extending that network.''

One of the interns who worked at Armstrong, Teasdale last summer was asked to stay on in the fall. Charles Tillman ``performed so well for us that we then provided him with a job opportunity over the school year,'' Cousins says.

Mr. Tillman has now graduated from high school and plans to attend Jackson State University in the fall. His coworkers at the law firm are helping him sort out financial-aid details. And Tillman has a standing invitation to work at the firm during his college vacations.

Andre May is an intern at Boatmen's National Bank of St. Louis. ``It's helping me learn exactly how a big business operates,'' says Mr. May, who hopes to run a business some day. ``I'm finding out that it takes everybody working together to get a job done.'' May's only prior work experience was ushering at a local movie theater.

While providing high-schoolers with rare professional experience is the main focus of the program, it also helps destroy the ``mythology'' about inner-city youths, Cousins says. ``The utility of this program is inarguable. On the one hand these kids are establishing a network that they will be able to use to propel themselves into a career,'' he says. ``On the other hand, they are also introducing dynamic employees of color from a different socioeconomic mix to a number of these corporate contexts.''

McClelland has spent the summer collecting business cards and grounding her career dreams in real-world experience. ``The first time I ever met an attorney was when I met Angela Turner,'' she says, referring to the assistant city counselor who is her supervisor.

Ms. Turner sees a little bit of her younger self in McClelland. ``I'm the first professional in my family and Sicily would be too. Something like this would have been very beneficial for me,'' she says. ``I had no idea what being an attorney was all about. I had lots of preconceived notions that turned out to be wrong. But I didn't find that out until I was in law school. So I'm giving Sicily a good dose of it.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.