Improving the Foster Care System
This entry is part of the Intern Chronicles Series, written by students interning at federal agencies who are interested in sharing their experiences with others. Elliott, from Casper, Wyoming, interned at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the National Resource Center for Youth Development (NRCYD). As a foster care alumni, Elliott brought a valuable perspective to their internship with the goal of improving the foster care system by training states and youth on youth development.
Cubicles, Conferences, and 16,000 Sky Miles
I'd like to think I have the best internship out there. I've already traveled to nine cities, almost all of them in different states, doing the work I'm most passionate about: training states and youth on youth development in the foster care system in order to hopefully make the system better.
My internship is with an organization called the National Resource Center for Youth Development (NRCYD), a federally-funded grantee of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children's Bureau. We are based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but I’m sure my friends following my social media have no idea where I actually live with all my travel. My internship is a position that allows me to work with states and tribes to offer training and technical assistance to their child welfare service providers. NRCYD offers two internships every summer for foster care alumni between the ages of 18 and 24 who have either been a FosterClub Allstar, a FosterClub Outstanding Young Leader, or a youth who has done work in the foster care system on a state or national level (https://www.fosterclub.com/). Sadly, this is NRCYD's last summer as their contract finishes this September but I couldn't be more grateful for the amazing summer I'm having helping wrap up NRCYD's projects.
The process for getting my internship with NRCYD was not so different from the process for most internships, so my experience can apply to finding nearly any other internship. Here are a few of my personal tips:
- For national internships, the applicant pool is very large, so make yourself stand out.
- If you have connections in the organization already that helps. Already knowing the people I would be working with, and their knowing me, helped ease the interview process and my decision to apply at all.
- Do the best job you can at interviews since it is your time to show the interviewers what you bring to the table. I've found the best way to interview is to be true to yourself. Sounds simple, and even expected, but no matter how many "interview advice" articles you read, you'll be glad you showed them who you are so you don't have to pretend to have skills you haven't had a chance to gain yet. I'm grateful that my interview was also a learning process and I could ask questions afterwards to understand where I need to grow. Understand what is being asked of you, and make sure you will gain something for the time you spend with an organization. An internship should benefit both you and the organization.
Internships will mean doing plenty of work, but are an opportunity for you to learn all you can in a professional setting. Fortunately for me, housing, travel, and food expenses are covered with an honorarium at the completion of this internship. This isn't the case with many internships, but I can say that, had this not been the case, I would likely not be here this summer. I feel proud to be an NRCYD intern because of the amazing people I work beside, learn from, and who care enough about me and the other intern to make sure we are taken care of. We take 10 weeks out of our summer to further our careers, putting many things on hold in the process. Having aged out of foster care, 10 weeks can be overwhelming: leaving home for the first time for an extended period of time, making sure housing and work is in place during and after the internship, and discovering who will be there to support you throughout any ups or downs of the summer. This struggle is not completely foreign to those who have not been in foster care. I encourage those foster youth and alumni that are reading this to give internships a chance. Don't tell yourself there's no way to make it work, only to leave yourself regretting not taking an opportunity that could change your life. More things are possible than we can predict, so be willing to risk it.
More Than Just a Story
There is an amazing transition that can happen for foster care youth and alumni when they work as advocates for change in the foster care system. When youth first become advocates in the system, they are often asked to share the struggles of their story so an audience can get an emotional reaction, and then go back to their lives. Sadly, this can be a disservice to youth because it seems as if they are being used solely for their story, rather than being seen as young professionals developing into change makers for the system. While one can go to school to gain an education, experiential knowledge can, at times, be more educational and impactful than a college degree. Now, this is not to say one should skip over higher education to go straight into advocacy. Rather, we need to see those who have gone through struggles as the voices for change to help direct what needs to be better in failing systems. When those youth seek higher education, share their voice, are seen as professionals, and also give their feedback to the system, they are empowered to go above and beyond and achieve futures that may have originally seemed statistically and circumstantially impossible.
An example of this happening is my internship at the National Resource Center for Youth Development. Being a foster care alumni is part of the criteria for obtaining the internship, along with prior professional advocacy experience. I did not realize originally that this internship would be the perfect medium for an alumna of care to advocate for a better system while also being seen as a professional. I found this to be true the more we have traveled and worked with states and discussed youth in care. When appropriate, I mention my time in care or speak of youth in care to bring that perspective to a discussion, only to discover that most professionals did not know I was an alumna of care. Up to that point, I’m seen as a professional and respected. When I see how interactions change after that knowledge is out, I become nervous that my voice is devalued due to the “just a foster youth” mindset that can happen. Fortunately, this internship has given me, and several other interns in a similar position, the opportunity to say, “We are professionals, we have something to say, and we don’t need you to hear our story to know why our voice counts.” In my work as an advocate for youth, I talk about this often to help emphasize the point that many professionals in the field overlook the experiential knowledge many youth bring to the table and don’t take them seriously.
I prefer to be seen as an advocate for youth rather than a youth advocate, meaning that, while I have shared my personal story (and still occasionally do), it is more beneficial to youth as a whole to advocate for the big picture. Advocating for other youth during my internship has not always taken the form of a presentation or speaking engagement. It also includes behind the scenes work like developing tip sheets, scripts for presentations, and other tools for the field. Adding my voice helps ensure these resources aren’t made by adults without true youth input. Including youth voices allows a product to be of high quality, and also engaging.
I take pride in interning for the National Resource Center for Youth Development as one of the lead organizations in child welfare that truly involves youth in changing the system. The federal government has taken notice of the importance of youth being at the table and providing their input. Being a part of this internship opportunity shows me that there was a time that this was not the case, and I’m extremely grateful to be where I am.