In summer 2023, the Charles Center launched a new initiative, the City Research Scholars Internship, offering mentored-research opportunities with five local nonprofits and the City of Williamsburg. Initially piloted in 2019, the program builds upon the collaborative work of Jack Boyd ’23 that culminated in a 35-page plan for an African American Heritage Trail in Williamsburg.
Charles Center director Elizabeth Harbron sees the new internship program as “a win-win-win—for students, William & Mary, and the residents of Williamsburg.”
“By partnering with local government and nonprofits, we’re giving students opportunities to excel as civic-minded scholars and to leave a lasting, positive legacy in the Williamsburg community.” Harbron said.
Successful applicants to the program are matched with a nonprofit partner and receive $4,000 in funding to complete ten full-time weeks of research. This summer, the first cohort of seven City Research Scholars were placed with the City of Williamsburg, Latisha’s House Foundation, Literacy for Life, Virginia Peninsula Foodbank, Williamsburg Farmers Market, and Williamsburg House of Mercy.
Three students—Sophie Workinger ’24, Lila Newberry ’24, and Sophie Piyis ’25—reflected on the transformative nature of their summer experiences.
“It was incredible, I haven’t stopped talking about this internship since I did it,” Piyis said. “I learned so much about the community.”
Piyis interned with House of Mercy and drew upon her training in data science and government to code two programs for the Hope Pregnancy Center. Prior to Piyis’s internship, House of Mercy did not have any electronic information systems to aid volunteers, employees, or clients.
Piyis’s programs track client information for volunteers and keep track of the center’s service output for items such as diapers and food distribution. She hopes to expand the electronic programs to other departments through her continued work with the organization.
“There’s a pantry, there’s a community kitchen, counseling referrals, medical referrals, those kinds of things are being tracked, and [the program] is consolidating it and analyzing it to see if there’s any trends for donors and getting more people involved,” Piyis said. “The people behind the numbers matter. And I feel like I got a tangible view of that because you’re preached that in data science classes, but you don’t really know until you actually see the people.”
Newberry similarly described the inspiring connections she made with Williamsburg residents through her work with Literacy for Life. Newberry was tasked with compiling demographics of learners at the organization and brainstorming ways to promote Literacy for Life based on her findings and interviews. Newberry created a tutor training video for the organization which included advice she received from past learners.
“I did over 30 interviews with past and current students,” Newberry said. “It was a whole different kind of ball game, learning how to approach people and understand where they’re coming from.”
From her work, Swem Library’s Special Collections is now creating a file concerning Literacy for Life. Newberry hopes to continue collaborating with the organization by volunteering with its digital literacy program. She also mentioned that students she interviewed and connected with over the summer have since contacted her for advice on job applications or help with technology.
“I want to go into education law and disability rights law; I want to work for people with learning disabilities,” Newberry said. “Having a client relationship is a skill I will take to all of my jobs.”
Through her internship with the City of Williamsburg, Workinger also reflected on the skills she cultivated during her time as a City Research Scholar. Workinger was tasked with creating a carbon emissions reduction plan for the City, which led her to propose ways to incrementally reduce emissions and metrics to calculate progress over time.
“The Charles Center experience with this internship over the summer really nailed in that whatever I do in the future, I want it to relate to the environment, which was very reassuring,” Workinger said. “It gave me a lot of skills in terms of communication, setting meetings, and leading meetings with people who are sometimes intimidating. And also, research skills that I hadn’t had beforehand, and initiative and self-confidence.”
Workinger, Newberry, and Piyis all emphasized the impact their internships had on them and recommended that anyone interested in engaging with the local community should apply for the next cohort.
“I think people who want to pop the bubble of the college campus, this is a great opportunity for them to do it, because it exposes them to the Williamsburg community completely outside of the William & Mary campus,” Piyis said. “Being exposed to the lives of people who live so differently from you is so important. That was the most valuable lesson, because I learned how to code better, but at the end of the day, I feel like I changed as a person because I was seeing people, meeting with people in the pregnancy center . . . and it just made me think a lot.”
Piyis also mentioned that though she initially thought her major would not apply to the internship, she believes that all students, including those in STEM, can succeed and shape their experience around their interests. “Even if the internship isn’t necessarily explicitly applicable to what you’re doing . . . I think there’s a lot of freedom with choosing what you want to do with the internship, and I like that freedom because I was able to tailor it to what I was interested in,” Piyis said. “It’s open to anyone who is willing to try something a little unconventional.”
Workinger emphasizes the invaluable skills that scholars can develop during the course of their internship, as well as the ability to give back to the community.
“I think there are so many different ways that this internship can help them as a person,” Workinger said. “I’m not from Virginia, but it was nice to be able to say that I spent four years here, and now I can finally give back a little bit . . .It was a wonderful internship opportunity,” she added, “I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
To Newberry, last summer’s opportunities and experiences opened her world to independent projects, new research, and a larger community.
“Anyone who’s able to be flexible and be a self-starter would be a perfect fit,” Newberry said. “Someone who can learn to build your own project, . . . who’s passionate about having their own self-guided research would be an awesome fit.”
Newberry also mentioned her appreciation for a pilot three-credit course developed through the Charles Center and offered free of charge through the internship.
Associate Professor of Sociology Caroline Hanley, who taught Newberry’s internship seminar and served on the faculty team that developed the course last spring, said she appreciated the connections students made between their academic experiences on campus and the “real world” of their internships.
“I especially enjoyed seeing the power of the liberal arts and sciences in action, as students drew on a wide range of classroom experiences to develop new capacities for creativity and learning over the summer and reflect back on the richness of their William & Mary experiences,” Hanley said. “I think the experience will serve our students well as they navigate life at William & Mary and beyond.”
To Piyis, Newberry, and Workinger, the internship and accompanying course provided invaluable experience and fostered positive professional and personal changes.
“It was such a rewarding experience, I don’t know how another internship is going to top it to be honest,” Piyis said. “I had such a great experience.”