Internships pave way for careers in conservation, social work and education

The Five Star Internship Fund is boosting opportunities for experiential learning

William Fitzgerald, on location for an internship with Little Traverse Conservancy in Harbor Springs, Michigan, maneuvers his kayak during an overnight excursion in September 2017. The assignment was to monitor a remote conservation easement. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – For many Penn State undergraduates, internships lie at the summit of their educational journey, where they synthesize knowledge gleaned from across academic disciplines and flexibly apply it to real-world scenarios. The intent behind internship opportunities is to build a bridge that can ease the transition from curricular learning to the professional world. Data compiled by the National Association of Colleges and Employers has underscored the extraordinary impact of these internships on graduates: shorter job searches, more offers, and higher starting salaries.

Over the last five years, students from the College of Health and Human Development have been gaining access to a wider breadth of internship opportunities because of financial assistance from the Five Star Internship Fund. The fund reduces the financial burdens associated with internships — transportation, housing, and other unavoidable expenses — so that no student feels compelled to decline an internship due to financial pressure.

Now, firsthand accounts from the College of Health and Human Development are driving home the value of these internships and spurring new interest in philanthropic investment.

William Fitzgerald, a 2017 graduate who majored in recreation, park and tourism management, is currently enrolled in a graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh, where he studies energy and environmental policy. But his passion for building a renewable energy infrastructure was sparked earlier, when a Penn State internship relocated his learning beyond the classroom and immersed him in the work of conservation and land stewardship.

William Fitzgerald, Recreation, Park and Tourism Management major, on location in Harbor Springs, Michigan, for the first day of his internship in July 2017.  Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

In the summer and fall of 2017, Fitzgerald interned at the Little Traverse Conservancy (LTC) in Harbor Springs, Michigan — a small resort town situated on the shores of Lake Michigan. There, he joined a team charged with protecting the environmental and scenic quality of Northern Michigan.

His dynamic role required him to venture daily into the nature preserves to clear trees, install boardwalks, conduct Geographic Information System mapping, and gather biological inventories of species. At the same time, his hands-on field experience was balanced with donor engagement and public outreach: contributing to fundraising operations, attending large stakeholder meetings, and building out the environmental education arm of LTC. By the end of his tenure, Fitzgerald had become so integral to developing educational programming that the organization hired him full-time straight out of his internship.

“My classes had equipped me with the skillset to succeed, but then I had to go out and execute everything I’d learned,” Fitzgerald said. “The experience was invaluable, and working alongside colleagues who were passionate about our mission really cemented my commitment to environmental stewardship.”

Fitzgerald stressed that because of the Five Star Internship Fund, he could focus squarely on the environmental mission of his organization. “Harbor Springs is a solid 10 hours from State College, and that meant hundreds of dollars in gas just for a one-way trip,” he said. “I’m grateful this resource exists to help students experience their dream internships — even in far-flung areas of the country.”

For other interns, embedded experiences have proven both profoundly eye-opening and also crucial to recalibrating their professional trajectory. Daniel Gonzalez, a 2019 graduate in human development and family studies, interned at Bethany Christian Services in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where he served as an unaccompanied refugee minor (URM) aide. His responsibilities, grounded in his bilingualism, included translating legal documents and acting as an interpreter between clients and social workers.

Daniel Gonzalez (center left), a 2019 Penn State graduate, on location for his internship with Bethany Christian Services in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, where he served as an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor aide. Credit: ProvidedAll Rights Reserved.

“Again and again, I saw refugee children struggling to express their trauma, and the language barrier and foreign environment and family separation just compounded those difficulties,” Gonzalez recalled. “In this kind of work, you really have to respond to the circumstances you’re dealt with, and you do your best to determine what’s the most meaningful way we can help.”

Ultimately, the experience clarified for Gonzalez that his skills and talents were better suited to a different set of challenges. He now works as a block operator for AMTRAK on the Philadelphia-Harrisburg line, ensuring safe execution of signals from train dispatchers.

“I feel lucky to have had the chance to reset where I was headed to make the most of what I have to give,” he said.

Other Five Star recipients have only recently wrapped up their spring 2021 internships, but they are already thinking through how they might parlay those experiences into long-term careers. Alexis Neimeyer, who majored in human development and family studies, recently completed a stint as a housing counselor at Centre Safe, an agency in downtown State College that provides refuge and services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking. Her slate of responsibilities included intake assessments, client advocacy in housing conflicts, and connecting clients with community resources.

“Staffing Centre Safe’s 24-hour crisis hotline taught me empathy, strength and patience, but more than anything, it confirmed my passion for social work and advocacy,” Neimeyer explained.

Larissa Brady, a 2021 Penn State graduate, on location for her internship at Mount Nittany Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Larissa Brady, who majored in human development and family studies, was interned as what is called a “multi-tiered system of support intern” at Mount Nittany Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania. Working one-on-one with students spanning kindergarten through fourth grade, she delivered tutoring support to students with learning disabilities, ESL students and students with behavioral challenges. For Brady, the experience resonated with the college’s broader mission to improve the lives of others.

“Our college has a diverse range of majors and internship opportunities, but I think what you’ll find is that they all are focused on helping others or enhancing public services that are inclusive and health affirming,” Brady said. “That’s a shared purpose we can all be proud of.”

Support for internships will advance "A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence," a focused campaign that seeks to elevate Penn State’s position as a leading public university in a world defined by rapid change and global connections. With the support of alumni and friends, “A Greater Penn State” seeks to fulfill the three key imperatives of a 21st-century public university: keeping the doors to higher education open to hardworking students regardless of financial well-being; creating transformative experiences that go beyond the classroom; and impacting the world by serving communities and fueling discovery, innovation and entrepreneurship. To learn more about “A Greater Penn State for 21st Century Excellence,” visit

Last Updated July 29, 2021