Cut off from traditional internship and summer job opportunities due to the pandemic, Washtenaw County teens and young adults still had the chance to develop their future career prospects thanks to a new virtual mentoring program launched by SummerWorks in the summer of 2020.

For 30-60 minutes a week over the course of the summer, more than 80 mentors connected virtually with SummerWorks participants to talk about everything from career pathways to civic engagement, professional networking, and how to thrive in the workplace. Local businesses and organizations also hosted 12 virtual internships.

Looking ahead to this summer, SummerWorks staff want to expand the mentorship program and recruit at least 100 University of Michigan mentors so each young person age 16 to 24 involved in the summer youth employment program can have a mentor.

The mentorship component was a welcome addition for Dora James, a high school senior from Ypsilanti who returned for her second year with SummerWorks.

“I was talking with my Success Coach about how perfect our mentors were,” said James, who hoped to gain more experience in psychology as she ultimately wants to become a psychologist. “It’s like magic. How did they know exactly what we wanted? And that’s how personalized the entire experience is. They make sure each and every one of us has what we need to move forward.”

SummerWorks is run through a partnership among Washtenaw County’s Office of Community and Economic Development, Michigan Works! Southeast and U-M. Its mission is to connect youth participants to strategies for building professional networks, exploring career opportunities, and developing essential job and leadership skills.

“Over the last year, we’ve been impressed and humbled by both our Washtenaw County and U-M communities’ willingness to engage with the SummerWorks program in new ways,” said Jordan Greene, SummerWorks program manager. “We received an overwhelming amount of interest in our mentoring program from professionals representing so many different career and educational backgrounds. The mentoring component of our program proved to be so successful that we plan to connect young adults to mentors each year moving forward.

“These relationships have proven to be invaluable. This year we’re hoping to connect 200 program participants to mentors who are willing to lend their expertise and share their career journey to help a young person think about their next steps.”

Sheila Waterhouse, communications director at the U-M Business Engagement Center, appreciated the chance to serve as a SummerWorks mentor in 2020 since her typical summer engagement with students on campus was not possible due to the COVID-19 lockdown. Waterhouse previously hired and supervised interns through SummerWorks, but the internships were on hold during the university’s hiring freeze.

“Being an employer is a rewarding experience, but mentoring SummerWorks youth opens up a whole new level of connection and impact,” Waterhouse said. “Mentoring allows you to build a trusting relationship with your mentee and cover so many topics outside the scope of employment. It enriches what you can offer your mentee and how you can grow together.”

Joe Coeling also enjoyed the new way to engage with SummerWorks youth. He previously hosted interns at U-M Dining, but that was no longer an option when he took on a new role as human resource generalist associate.

“Since my job didn’t really fit the employer side of the program anymore, taking on the mentor role felt like a great way to keep contributing with a manageable time commitment,” Coeling said.

“I’ve really been trying to give my time and energy to causes that matter, and I see so much of myself in the young adults that take part in SummerWorks — trying to get meaningful learning experiences and support themselves or their families at the same time.”

Survey feedback indicated that overwhelmingly, mentors, employers and young adults had positive SummerWorks experiences in the first year of the virtual mentorship program.

Employment and mentorship last for 10 weeks during summer programming (mid-June to late-August). The deadline for mentor applications has been extended to April 30.

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