Undergraduate Interns Gain Insiders' Perspective on the President's Office

March 16, 2011 — Kayla Harmon's friends all want to know: What is President Sullivan really like?

Harmon has a unique perspective on the University of Virginia's new president, Teresa A. Sullivan. She's one of three fourth-year sociology majors in the College of Arts & Sciences who are interns this semester in the Office of the President.

"They all want to know, 'How is President Sullivan? Does she know your name?'" Harmon said.

"It speaks very highly of President Sullivan that she is so invested in students as a new president," she said. "Everybody is shocked that she would take the time to organize an internship for undergrad students."

And yes, the president does know her name, as well as the names of her fellow interns, Kevin Mernin and Saara Zaman. They kicked off the internship with breakfast at Carr's Hill, and besides seeing them around the office, Sullivan – an accomplished sociologist – meets with them individually to help them shape the projects that are required as part of their internship program.

The president invited the sociology department to nominate internship candidates, each of whom wrote a short statement of interest. Harland Harris and Joan Fry, staffers in the president's office, interviewed a handful of finalists before selecting Harmon, Mernin and Zaman.

This is no symbolic gesture. The students are doing real work, cycling through month-long stints in Madison Hall, the Major Events office and the Board of Visitors office. In between, they have assigned sociological readings, write weekly journal entries and meet every other week with sociology professor Katerina Makarova to put what they observe into an academic perspective. And they will have a major paper due at the end of the semester to apply their sociological perspective to an issue of interest to the president's office.

In exchange they receive three credits, a small stipend and perhaps the experience of their young lives.

A similar invitation shaped Sullivan's career. After she graduated from Michigan State University, its president, Clifton R. Wharton Jr., asked her to serve as an intern in his office.

"The experience had a profound effect on me," Sullivan said. "I hope that our students learn as much from their internships as I did from mine."

Wharton became her mentor; when she expressed interest in a higher education career, he pushed her toward pursuing a doctorate. She ended up going to the University of Chicago, one of his alma maters.

Harmon said her outlook has already been affected. A native of Bluefield in Southwest Virginia, she began the internship knowing that she wanted to do something to address health care disparities in Appalachia. She had previously volunteered at the Remote Area Medical Clinic, and seeing the people lined up for hours to receive basic care "broke my heart into so many pieces," she said. "You have never met people so appreciative and so resilient every day of their lives."

The interns have the opportunity to meet one-on-one with several University administrators. Harmon's sit-down with R. Edward Howell, vice president and chief executive officer of the U.Va. Health System, has her leaning toward pursuing a career in the policy and administrative side of health care, where she believes she can make the greatest impact.

"I am truly convinced I can make a difference in health care in Appalachia," said Harmon, who said she's considering seeking an internship in U.Va. Health System administration after graduation. "That is what keeps me up at night – people's health."

While Zaman and Mernin haven't yet altered their career plans – Zaman, from Arlington, will work in client relations and outreach for a D.C. consulting firm, while Mernin, a Norfolk native, hopes to study advertising at Virginia Commonwealth University – they both said they have benefitted greatly from getting a closer look at the human side of running the University.

"I was expecting to be really intimidated here," Mernin said, "but they're all very nice. For the most part, everything is very transparent. They're not hiding things from us, not sugar-coating anything. They have made me feel very welcome."

Mernin's first rotation was in Major Events, located in cozy Leake Cottage on Carr's Hill ("It's like a little family in there," he said). That fit nicely with his internship project, which will focus on the president's upcoming inauguration.

"I'm really interested in rituals and symbols," he said. "The inauguration of a University president is full of symbols – symbols of new relationships, and how they build on each other."

Zaman's first rotation was in Madison Hall. She interviewed administrators and helped Sullivan's speechwriter, Jon Bowen, with research.

She has been particularly impressed with the president's cabinet meetings, which the interns have all sat in on. "It's nice to see the way the leaders of the University can sit down at a table and efficiently go through everything that goes on around the University," she said.

Harmon's first rotation was in the Board of Visitors office, which was busy readying for February's quarterly meeting. She prepared biographies of all of the board members, observed presentation rehearsals and then attended all of the meetings.

"It was really a learning experience – not only about how they prepare for the meetings, but seeing how decisions are made," she said. "I think the average student never thinks about the Board of Visitors."

All of the interns work closely with Nancy Rivers, Sullivan's chief of staff, who Zaman called "an amazing person. She's an extremely impressive leader."

Rivers said she has been impressed with the interns, too. Having undergraduate students around has been valuable, she said.

"What I have tried to do is ask questions to get their perspectives on ideas they may have for reaching out and interacting with students," she said. "The other part is trying to enrich the undergraduate experience, and how they think we are doing in that area."

Already, Rivers said, she and the president are planning to continue the internship program. Though sociology students were an easy draw to start with given Sullivan's background in the field, Rivers said future interns will come from other areas around the University.

Makarova, the sociology professor working with the students, said she has never heard of a similar program. "As director of undergraduate studies, I am really grateful to President Sullivan, because she takes undergraduate studies seriously," she said.

Working with the students to help put their internships in an academic framework has been a positive for her, too. "It is much deeper an experience than teaching an ordinary class," she said. "I get to know them from another side. It has been very rewarding."

As for those inquisitive friends, the interns report a uniformly positive impression of the University's new president.

"I've really enjoyed being an ambassador for President Sullivan," Zaman said. "I'm telling everyone she's making great decisions and being a great representative for the University."

– by Dan Heuchert

Media Contact

Dan Heuchert

Assistant Director of University News and Chief Copy Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications