Life-changing internships turn a young woman toward new goals
Lisa Chen ’12 came to college with a clear path aimed at making a difference in the world. She imagined attending law school immediately after Cornell. But three significant internships–combined with majors in international relations, women’s studies, and politics–changed her course to educational policy, beginning with teaching in one of the country’s most challenging schools.
The first step after graduation for the Cerritos, Calif., native is a two-year assignment with Teach For America (TFA) in New York City, where she will teach history and politics in a low-income high school. After earning her master’s degree through TFA, Chen envisions working as a legislative director for a congresswoman, focusing on education and other social policies. Her Cornell preparation positioned her well for this possibility.
As a sophomore, Chen spent a semester interning at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington, D.C. While she valued the experience, she also realized she didn’t want to work in such a bureaucratic or hierarchical environment.
A few months later she explored a more hands-on role through a Cornell Fellowship with the Red Cross Society of China, focusing especially on their work with HIV/AIDS education and prevention. She helped organize a week-long conference for HIV/AIDS outreach workers and spent two weeks in remote Ning Xia province assessing the results of Red Cross Society projects, such as improved hygiene facilities and education in secondary schools.
“It was an unforgettable experience, and it was inspiring to be part of an organization that is making such a difference in the lives of Chinese citizens,” Chen said. “But it also made me realize that there are social problems everywhere and that I should work domestically and make improvements closer to home.”
A course on education policy helped her recognize the ways in which education policies are connected to income levels, social mobility, and other social issues. From there it was back to D.C., this time for a summer internship in Cornell Professor Emeritus and Congressman Dave Loebsack’s office, where all the pieces began to fit together.
“I worked closely with one of Congressman Loebsack’s legislative assistants who dealt specifically with education and women’s issues. Through this internship, I was able to learn a significant amount and solidify my interest in working for the legislative branch one day in the near future,” she said.
In her education policy class Chen was inspired by the book “Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach For America.” Speaking at length with Cornell alumni in TFA and reading blog posts gave her a better understanding of the experience and the inspiration to apply.
She’s grateful for all the opportunities at Cornell to travel abroad, gain funding for internships, and participate in a variety of activities on campus, ranging from cheerleading to middle school tutoring to serving as a peer advisor.
“When I talk to friends at bigger schools, they’re so happy if they get funding for even one thing,” she said. “Here you can really try a little bit of everything, and as long as you push yourself nothing is unattainable.”