President Sullivan’s Undergrad Interns Learn Firsthand About Leadership

Group photo left to right: Laura Gaul, Alexandra Valdez, President Teresa A. Sullivan, Akil Mitchell and Emily Renda

L-R: Interns Laura Gaul and Alexandra Valdez, President Teresa A. Sullivan, interns Akil Mitchell and Emily Renda

University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan is an accomplished sociologist, and each spring she selects a handful of sociology undergraduates to intern in her office.

In addition to working 10 to 15 hours a week in Sullivan’s office for the three-credit internship, the student interns must write a research paper, under Sullivan’s guidance, that examines some aspect of U.Va. student life using a sociological perspective.

This unique blend of an internship and academic course is co-supervised by sociology professor Katya Makarova, who assigns articles on the sociology of work, leads group discussions and requires the interns to keep weekly journals connecting the readings with their own experiences in the office.

This year’s cohort – graduating fourth-years Laura Gaul, Akil Mitchell, Emily Renda and Alexandra Valdez – say they have learned valuable skills that they’ll be able to transfer to any setting.

Gaul, a transfer student from Fairfax recently elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honorary fraternity, said Makarova “really encouraged us to take an objective, sociological look at the work we were doing in the office. Learning to incorporate that perspective into the way we approached projects really exposed the value of studying as a sociology major."

Sullivan makes time in her busy schedule to talk with the interns about the challenges and rewards of being president, and the importance of communication and networking, as well as advising them on their sociology research projects.

“It has been a humbling experience,” said Mitchell, a basketball standout who helped lead the Cavaliers into the “Sweet Sixteen” round of the NCAA Tournament.

“My admiration for her has only increased after talking with her in person,” said Gaul. “I hope that some day I will be able to make the impact that she has made through her leadership at U.Va.”

The interns worked in the president’s office this semester in three different areas: the Office of Strategic Planning, the Board of Visitors office and the Office of Major Events.

Sullivan initiated the internship for sociology students in her office soon after arriving at the University in 2010; she herself had a similar experience when she interned in the office of former Michigan State University President Clifton Wharton in 1970. Her goal, as with other internships, is to provide students with a world-class experience in higher education while exposing them to diverse career paths and professional positions.

“I hope that our student interns gained practical knowledge and learned valuable lessons from their experience in the President’s office,” Sullivan said. “I know that my staff and I certainly learned from these talented students, as they shared their perspectives and experiences with us.”

“The career path meetings that I’ve had with U.Va. administration officials throughout this internship will be really useful to me as I graduate from U.Va.,” Valdez said. “I was able to hear about their incredible career experiences and get advice from individuals far more knowledgeable than me.”

Mitchell said he appreciated seeing firsthand the behind-the-scenes workings of a professional office.

He’ll tuck the experience in his back pocket, however, while he travels around the country to work out with various National Basketball Association teams, “trying to impress a team.” He will enter the NBA draft in June and presumably will be playing professionally, either in the NBA or overseas.

Renda wanted to get a sense of what U.Va. really looks like beyond a purely undergraduate perspective, she said.

“I think gaining an institutional perspective is important for any life step – thinking systemically about anything you work in is helpful in envisioning ways to impact and change the problems you face while situated in that institution and framework,” she said.

“Generally, I learned what an incredible degree of complexity exists on an organizational level at U.Va.,” Renda said, “from the impacts of Freedom of Information Act rules on governance to our experience as a research institution with a hospital, and how far-reaching budget and social policies at the state and federal level impact our functioning in a way other schools don’t have to contend with.”

“It was really wonderful to get the opportunity to have President Sullivan’s feedback and input on our research through the semester, and to get a sense from her about the personal and institutional challenges of serving as a president,” said Renda, who also participated in the president’s national conference in February, “Dialogue at UVA: Sexual Misconduct Among College Students.”

“The ability to incorporate an objective, sociological perspective into my day-to-day research, problem-solving and leadership is a skill I learned in this internship, and I hope to maintain this ability for the rest of my life,” Gaul said.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

Office of University Communications