02/11/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Apr 13, 2013

Fresh Air: Working With Interns for Social Justice

By Robin Levi, Student Advisor, Students Rising Above

Sometimes you need a breath of fresh air. I first learned about Students Rising Above (SRA)--an organization that helps low-income, first generation students earn college degrees--at a time when I really needed a lot of fresh air. I had been working on women's human rights for almost twenty years, and had just finished co-editing Inside this Place, Not of It: Oral Narratives from Women's Prisons with Ayelet Waldman.

At the book launch for Inside this Place, Lauren Brener, SRA's Internship Coordinator, ran up to me and said that my organization, Justice Now, would be a perfect place for SRA student interns. Boy was she right! Every time a resume arrived, I ran out of my office to tell everyone how awesome the applicant was. The students didn't disappoint at the interview stage. They were so professional, and at the same time, warm and genuine. If anything, they were too modest. A few times during the interview process, I would stop to tell them, "don't forget to make this point, this is awesome." Even our client coordinator who does the final hiring asked, "Can I just hire SRA students?"

SRA Interns - A Cut Above the Rest
If we could have, we would have hired them all. We ended up hiring two SRA student interns for summer 2012. One student worked on child custody issues and the other worked on communications. Each student came from such a difficult place; both had close family members who had been imprisoned. Justice Now always looks to hire people from communities that send a lot of people to prison. But all too often, they do not have the necessary skills to work at a legal office and require more support and supervision than we can provide.

That wasn't the case with the SRA students. Not only were they professional, productive, and eager to learn, but they also brought such warmth and wisdom because of their experience with family members in prison. They each possessed a strong desire to give back. They interviewed many women in prison, answered telephone calls, and responded to letters on legal issues. One SRA student worked until 11:00 pm several nights to help a young woman who had recently come home from prison with job applications. The other student spearheaded a fundraising campaign for Justice Now with people inside prison.

Helping Interns Succeed
Now it's true that these two bright SRA interns weren't perfect. But we found that they responded well to positive criticism and advice. We learned not to assume that they already knew how to do something. What they lacked in experience, they made up for in eagerness. They quickly learned about working in a legal office and how to do it successfully. Justice Now staff loved both of them. At Board meetings their names regularly came up as people that we would like to hire again.

Joining the SRA Team
My introduction to SRA came at a perfect time for me. After working with women in prison for almost twenty years, I was ready to look at generational poverty from a different angle. I left my job at Justice Now and went to work for SRA as a Student Advisor. I now work with 7 high school seniors, providing them guidance from high school through college, helping them trouble-shoot problems, and making sure they take advantage of all that college and SRA has to offer.

I am continually amazed at how accomplished and positive my SRA high school students are, despite coming from incredibly difficult backgrounds. Their willingness to learn, their dedication, their desire to be the best they can be--these are the same qualities I experienced from the older SRA college interns back at Justice Now. Every day my students give me energy, and keep me going; they're a breath of fresh air.

Help SRA Help Others
SRA has helped hundreds of extraordinary young adults break the cycle of poverty through mentoring, college education, and job training. The more funding and awareness we raise, the more students we can help. Please visit our fundraising page on CrowdRise, and support our efforts to change the lives of hard-working young men and women in our country. Thank you.