Inside the remote student internship program solving government problems

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Agencies are gearing up to invite nearly 1,000 American students to work on government projects they can complete from their dorm rooms.

Through a State Department-created internship program, students can create data visualizations for embassies around the world or design apps or websites for agencies in a 10-hour-a-week commitment that spans an academic year.

This program, called the Virtual Student Foreign Service, is helping to coordinate remote internships for more than 30 agencies this year. FedScoop sat down with two people instrumental in making the Virtual Student Foreign Service run, and spoke with two former virtual interns, to talk about how the program has grown over the years, what has been accomplished through the initiative so far and just how strange it is to never really meet up in person.

Applications for the program recently closed after more than 3,600 students applied. Now agencies have until Aug. 31 to select their next crop of interns. The number of open slots for applicants is still growing, with agencies adding projects or asking for permission to add more interns to current projects.

The program all began in 2009, when the idea for the program was slipped into then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech at New York University’s commencement, VSFS Director Bridget Roddy told FedScoop.

After that speech, the Office of eDiplomacy in the State Department was eventually charged with figuring out how to make what Clinton announced real.

“What we wanted to do is… take something like an internship program and make it remote and virtual, so students wouldn’t have to find housing or pay to come to Washington to do an internship, or you know obtain a background check and security clearance and wait and wait and wait,” Roddy said.

The program started with positions in the State Department and then expanded to include the U.S. Agency for International Development, before growing to include more agencies.

The internship program is project-based, so students are offered positions to complete specific projects for agencies. The internship is unpaid, but some students coordinate school credit for their work.

“When interns come in… everybody goes, ‘oh gosh.’ You have to find something for the interns to do,” said Nora Dempsey, senior advisor for innovation in the Office of eDiplomacy. “This threw it up on its head…. You’re looking for real folks with real skills and you have work for them.”

For example, a VSFS intern created a map to locate U.S. sheep ranches to aid visa officers combating H2-A visa fraud at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru.

“It really related to me because my father’s Peruvian and I’ve been to Peru a lot of times,” former VSFS intern Mark Valenzuela told FedScoop.

Valenzuela completed the map in May and is now a Marine Corps officer candidate.

“My supervisor told me that map encouraged them to send visa officers down to some regions to visit the ranches and find out more about the sheepherders there,” he said.

Valenzuela had quite the undertaking in his internship. He had to use many different sources to get his information, including reaching out to legal firms to see which ranches had lawsuits against them for alleged visa fraud.

He used ArcGIS mapping software to create the digital map.

For his winter break, Valenzuela actually decided to travel to Peru to meet the staff he had been working with and see the embassy. While he didn’t meet his supervisor, he did get to meet some of the other staff.

During the internship, Valenzuela said he just communicated with the embassy through weekly emails.

But while Valenzuela decided to travel and meet his coworkers, Dempsey and Roddy noted in their interview with FedScoop that traveling is not necessary.

“I think human resources at the State Department is particularly fond of this plan because it has a way to reach the students who would never dream of being able to contribute to the government, to international foreign policy or an international presence,” Dempsey said.

She added: “We always hear from students who don’t have the resources to go overseas, or don’t have the resources to come to Washington, so it’s really wonderful that you can do great diplomacy from your dorm room in Iowa. Or talk to students now in Cairo, or in Libya now from your home computer.”

Students do not need security clearances, and agencies do not need special approvals to participate. But even with all those barriers removed, some agencies still need guidance in deciding on projects and choosing interns. The VSFS office can help with that, Roddy said.

“We kind of break down the bureaucracy, and empower individuals to come up with their own projects,” Roddy said.

One student said the internship offered her the flexibility she needed to continue school while getting real world experience in public service.

“Being able to be remotely located was exactly what I needed, because it did allow me to stay in school full time and pursue an internship at the State Department,” Erika Volino, another VSFS alumna, told FedScoop.

Volino now serves as a second lieutenant in the Air Force.

Volino worked from October 2011 to May of 2012 through the U.S. Embassy in Cyprus, located in Nicosia, to expand the embassy’s social media presence.

She communicated with her program supervisors through conference call and Skype. The only downside was the time difference, she said, but she noted that the staff worked around her university schedule.

“I had interest in public service for a long time, especially in the State Department, but didn’t know at that time how I was going to be able to go physically, either taking a semester off to go to D.C., or go abroad,” Volino said.

At the end of the project the embassy had reached its goal of doubling its social media audience, Volino said.

Volino enjoyed that first project so much that she decided to intern in person at the State Department, and was granted an internship to work for VSFS.

While doing that internship, she actually came up with an idea for another VSFS project, after listening to several foreign service officers speak about evacuations in emergency situations.

At the end of their presentation, the officers told the interns to feel welcome to pitch ideas for projects, and Volino did.

Her project, which she worked on through March 2013, continued diplomacy efforts at a time when the U.S. Embassy in Libya was closed after the 2012 Benghazi attack.

“This is the point where I proposed this virtual conference club because it was one way to leverage the technology tools that we still had available in the country while being at home in D.C.,” Volino said.

Volino facilitated a conversation club to help 14 Libyan teenagers practice their English skills once a week for an hour.

Since then Volino has also interned for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which she became familiar with while interning at the State Department.

“That time at VSFS set the foundation for the rest of my career,” Volino said.

She said: “It gives you that real world experience that I know many college students are looking for and an environment where you’re able to have that flexibility that sometimes you need.”

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Agencies, Departments, ediplomacy, Mobile & Wireless, remote internships, State Department, Tech, telework
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