When the coronavirus forced many companies to close or ask employees to work from home, those firms figured it would be difficult to host student interns this summer. As they began canceling, the University of Virginia scrambled to find some other way for students to get meaningful work experience.
This summer, about 500 students at the University of Virginia will take part in the Propel program – working as consultants to start-up companies and small businesses in rural Virginia counties hurt by the pandemic.
“They didn’t have websites. They didn’t have e-commerce. They didn’t have a way to get to their customers,” says David Lapinski, director of Employer Relations and Experiential Learning at UVA. He explains that teams of three students will work directly with businesses to plan websites, mobile platforms or e-commerce strategies.
Students can take online courses to supplement their internships, enroll in a consulting boot camp and get support from a group of mentors.
“We have around 80 alumni who have volunteered to coach the students on these projects,” Lapinski says.
Students are excited by the opportunity to use their digital skills and creativity, while rural counties are grateful for the assistance. Lapinski still remembers meeting with the economic development director in Fluvanna.
“When I first came to him we had this really formal pitch presentation," he recalls. "We said, ‘Are you interested?’ ‘Am I interested? Absolutely! He goes, ‘You had me at the word ‘free!’”
Students get no academic credit or pay for the program, but there are cash prizes for teams that develop the best business plans, and Lapinski says taking part in Propel may help students figure out what kind of work they’d like to do after graduation.