Story by Mary Abowd | Portraits by Joel Wintermantle

A master's student in the Divinity School, Drew Kerr was drawn to India through his studies in Jainism, an ancient Indian religion.

Last winter, inspired by a class that explored the concept of “seva,” or selfless service, he found an internship placement with an Indian development organization dedicated to helping the poor.

“I reached out to them, and they said, ‘We need you,’” Kerr says. “The only thing missing was the funding to make it happen.”

Through the newly launched Graduate Global Impact internship program, which offers short-term opportunities to graduate students and postdocs, Kerr was one of 70 students placed in 10-week, paid internships this past summer at such sites as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and Oxfam America. The program also offers two- to five-day externships at companies like Cabot Microelectronics or campus centers such as UChicago Tech.

The internship program is a crucial part of UChicagoGRAD, a new office launched in May, with the goal of complementing graduate students’ education with a menu of services and support.

As the first university-wide paid internship program for graduate students, it provides opportunities to use their graduate training to help an organization in a substantive way, while developing skills that will make them successful job candidates, regardless of career path. Campus partners for the pilot year of the GGI internships were the myCHOICE program at the Biological Sciences Division and the Emerging Leaders Initiative at the Division of Social Sciences.

An internship might allow students to collect data that informs their dissertation, develop archival research skills, or hone public speaking, says Prof. Sian Beilock, vice provost for academic initiatives.

“Not only do GGI internships/externships give students invaluable experiences, they also help advance students’ own academic study at UChicago,” Beilock adds. “To receive an internship, students must explicitly make the case for how their experience will further their own studies.” 

Students can apply to existing internships or, like Kerr, design their own with support from UChicagoGRAD staff. “They were with me every step of the way,” Kerr says, “facilitating the space to develop and pitch my proposal.”

Here’s more on how Kerr and other graduate students spent their internships:

UChicago grad student Tingting Xu

Tingting Xu: Identifying unknown photographer in China

At the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Mass., art history doctoral student Tingting Xu was charged with cataloguing 39 boxes of early 20th-century photographs of China.

That task became more like detective work when Xu discovered that the photographer of the 1,475 black-and-white gelatin prints was a mystery.

“I opened one box, then another, then another,” says Xu, who specializes in Chinese photography during the late Qing dynasty—the last of China’s imperial dynasties. “The photos were dated, but the photographer’s name was nowhere to be found.”

UChicago grad student Tingting Xu at Peabody Essex Museum
As part of her internship this past summer at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Mass., doctoral student Tingting Xu catalogued nearly 1,500 black-and-white prints of late-20th-century China taken by an American photographer. (Photo courtesy of Tingting Xu)

The photographs were random, amateur snapshots, Xu says, but they were clearly a treasure, providing “a rare and vivid image of China and its people” at the beginning of the 20th century.

Xu’s trained eye and sheer doggedness led her to identify the photographer, Charles Frederick Gammon, an American who first ventured to Tianjin, China in 1895.

A much smaller assemblage of Gammon’s photographs are housed at Harvard University, but the collection Xu identified and catalogued represents his complete oeuvre. Peabody Essex is digitizing the collection and plans to make it available to the public.

“I never dreamed I would discover something like this,” says Xu, who plans to pursue museum curatorial work upon completion of her graduate degree. “This internship was a starting point, a crucial first step.”

UChicago grad student Natalia Piland

Natalia Piland: Studying conservation in Peru

Originally from Peru, Natalia Piland’s passion for conservation began with childhood romps through the Amazon rainforest, one of the most ecologically diverse places on earth.

“I remember being 6 and feeling like I wanted to live in the rainforest forever,” she says.

Now a doctoral student in evolutionary biology, Piland studies the effects of urbanization on Peru’s birds. She plans to pursue a career promoting what she calls the “science-conservation connection.”

As part of her internship this fall at the Field Museum’s Science Action Center, she is spearheading a project compiling conservation successes and priorities in Peru’s northern Loreto region in the Amazon.

UChicago grad student Natalia Piland in Peru
Doctoral student Natalia Piland (left) measures a rock pigeon as part of her dissertation research this past summer in Iquitos, Peru. Piland’s internship at the Field Museum has helped further her research while connecting her to scientists doing conservation work in Peru. (Photo by Bening Alegría)

The resulting publication will detail Loreto’s geographical and political history, ecosystems, and indigenous communities, in an effort to urge the government to shelter the region from exploitation.

It will complement a series of Field Museum publications that has successfully led to the creation of protected areas in Peru and elsewhere. “One of the first steps is to outline, in a technical fashion, why these areas need protection,” Piland says of the work.

The internship has provided rich context for Piland's dissertation, while helping her forge connections with Field Museum scientists who have a long affiliation with conservation work in Peru. It also has expanded her networks in that country—where she plans to return to work after graduation.

“It’s been so valuable,” Piland says. “I’ve gained exposure to different perspectives, different partners, and a wider range of actors.”

UChicago grad student Drew Kerr

Drew Kerr: Surveying sanitation needs in India

Drew Kerr journeyed to south Rajasthan in India last summer, home to much of the country’s Jain community.

“The location was spot on,” says Kerr, a master's student in the Divinity School. “I was right in the midst of all the people I’d been reading about.”

Kerr worked on sanitation and potable water projects with Seva Mandir, a nongovernmental, rural community development organization.

The opportunity provided ample chance to improve his Hindi language skills—none of the villagers he encountered spoke English—but it also took him deep into the lives of the local people.

UChicago grad student Drew Kerr in India
Drew Kerr (top center) hosts a meeting this past summer in the south Rajastan town of Kherwara with colleagues from Seva Mandir, an NGO in India. Kerr helped work with local leadership to strategize and implement plans for sanitation projects in the area. (Photo by Joel Wintermantle)

To assess community needs, Kerr designed a detailed survey that he administered by traveling to remote villages and engaging families in conversation.

“I wanted a narrative to emerge around peoples’ lives,” he says. “As vital as outcomes and metrics are, they’re nothing without understanding the situation through their eyes.”

Kerr analyzed villagers’ responses and, at the end of the internship, was able to present Seva Mandir with community-based recommendations to guide future sanitation efforts.

In the process, Kerr got a sense that development work in India could be the path for him. “I saw how I could live in India and direct a project there,” he says. “I felt so at home and so invested; I have full faith I’ll be back.” 

Originally published on November 2, 2015.