Megan Bailey — Sometimes the Data Does Not Tell the Whole Story: Working with the Maine Government Summer Internship Program
I am going into my third year working at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center (MCSPC) where I am in charge of projects related to community and economic development. As such, I spend much of my time thinking about big picture trends and their implications for communities across the state. One issue that stretches across almost all of my work are the implications surrounding an aging workforce and a declining population. Maine is a small-town state, and young people with an ability and willingness to engage in municipal and state government are its lifeblood. This is why I excitedly pipe-up when the call goes around the MCPSC each February asking for help with the Maine Government Summer Internship Program.
This was my second year helping match students with internships in government agencies and local municipalities throughout Maine. I find it inspiring to read the cover letters submitted by college students from across the state and beyond. It is clear that for some, this internship experience would be the next logical step towards a career they had already identified. Others admit that they are not sure what the future holds, but they know they have a certain set of skills and are interested in applying them to real problems.
What made this year particularly special for me was having the opportunity to not only get to know these students from their applications, but to actually meet some of them during a mid-summer educational session in Augusta.
I was asked to help lead group discussions where interns could reflect on their experience thus far – the highs, the lows, the expected, and the unexpected. I learned that for many this internship was their first experience in a professional work environment and their first glimpse at the inner workings of state/local government. Some expressed frustration with the slow pace of bureaucracy (“I had no idea how many steps there are before something can get done”) or the outdated software and systems used. Fair enough. Others talked about how they had developed a greater appreciation for municipal government (“I never thought about how much gets decided on a local level”) and their newfound fascination with town meetings (“it doesn’t get more real than that – you get to sit in a room with people hashing out problems people face on a day-to-day basis”). One young woman admitted, excitedly, that she was rethinking her entire career. Her background in art history and economics had led to an assumption that she would one-day work at an auction house. As a direct result of her internship, she is considering a career in town planning.
Understandably, not every student expressed an interest in pursuing a career working in local or state government (“I’m glad I did it, but I can’t see myself there forever”) or for that matter, even staying in Maine (“I won’t sugar coat it – I need the sun”). However, this experience may have been the starting point that encouraged them to pursue service opportunities wherever they end up.
To keep the state and its towns (big and small) running requires dedicated community leaders. In my own experience, it is clear many towns across the state are running on fumes, with the same folks stepping up repeatedly to serve on different boards, committees and in municipal offices. When my day-to-day is filled with stories like this from town managers, selectmen and other stakeholders, and I am looking at data that shows the trends over time, I cannot help but get frustrated. Then February comes around, and with it, a flood of applicants expressing an interest in giving back to, and learning from, the state they love. It is a nice reminder that sometimes data does not tell the whole story.