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PROFILE: Interns With a Cause - PR Students Rev Up Nonprofits

A free store for teachers is just one of many nonprofits gaining valuable public relations advice from a new partnership between UC and Scripps Howard Foundation.

Date: 12/9/2002
By: Marianne Kunnen-Jones
Phone: (513) 556-1826
Photos By: Dottie Stover
UC ingot It's hard for school kids to learn without basics like pens, crayons, notebooks and glue. At UC, students are encouraged to learn with the help of another basic element of education - real-life experience in their fields of study.

Ambuja Joshi, right, with Aurora (Ind.) School teacher Lesley Weber

Both of these principles come together in a paid internship for UC master's student Ambuja Joshi that is now giving her one of the most satisfying educational experiences of her life.

Joshi, a graduate student in communication in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences, interns for Crayons to Computers, a nonprofit free store serving teachers in Greater Cincinnati schools. The store's mission is to ensure that children in the Tristate have the basic tools they need to learn, even if their families and school systems cannot afford them. The Bond Hill store relies mostly on donations of surplus goods, volunteer help and financial sponsors to meet its goals, so it could not ordinarily afford to hire an intern like Joshi.

Instead, the Crayons to Computers internship came about via a program funded by Scripps Howard Foundation. The foundation's support provides much needed assistance to area nonprofits by matching them to UC communication students seeking opportunities to put their skills to work. Lisa Newman, director of undergraduate studies in the UC communication department, and Patty Cottingham, executive director of Scripps Howard Foundation, established the partnership in fall 2001.

For Joshi and the Crayons to Computers position, extra funding for 20 hours total was made available to create a graduate-level professional residency.

Compared to classroom assignments, Joshi observes, the residency is providing a learning experience that is reality based, rather than "conceptual and ideal but not necessarily feasible." In the busy environment of Crayons to Computers, she has noticed, "It is different. I'm having a real impact on real people," she said.

Ambuja Joshi, right, with Rena Snouffer, teacher from New Richmond School in Amelia

Over the past year, UC communication students - most of them undergraduate students -  have experienced similar internships at nonprofits such as Big Brother/Big Sisters of Greater Cincinnati, the American Red Cross, Tender Mercies shelter for the mentally ill and Northern Kentucky's regional economic development and planning organization called Forward Quest. In January, yet another UC student will start a public relations internship- this one at the Center for the Holocaust & Humanity Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

"Our internship program is a wonderful opportunity for students to gain practical experience and learn about the nonprofit world.  The responses from the nonprofits have been very favorable. It's a win-win program," said Cottingham. 

Joshi, a native of Mumbai (Bombay), India, began work at Crayons to Computers in Bond Hill this fall.

Her role has been to help survey the store's customers, who are teachers affiliated with schools where 60 percent or more of the students qualify for free- or reduced-lunch programs. Crayons to Computers, which opened to 22 schools in 1997, has by now supplied more than $15 million in new and recycled school supplies to more than 140 eligible school in 13 counties. It operates with a paid staff of five, a CEO and COO who are both full-time volunteers, plus hundreds of other volunteers. After five years in operation, the agency would like to get a better idea of its impact in the classroom, says Denise Greber, operations manager and volunteer coordinator.

To help fill that need, Joshi developed a 20-question survey, asking teachers about the types of products they get at Crayons to Computers, how those products are used and whether student attendance, behavior and performance have improved as a result of the free store. To find out what kinds of questions to put in the questionnaire, Joshi interviewed about 20 teachers by phone. She then had to assess how best to disseminate and collect the survey. The phone interviews helped her to draw up the survey, which was distributed to teachers as they left the store. Joshi said her classroom studies helped a lot, especially in selecting valid questions.

Previoiusly, Joshi had done a class project involving an East End school and had observed how great the need was for classroom supplies. "I saw how much teachers had to put in on their own. The schools were not supplying it. I kept thinking there has to be a way to help them, and here it is. I like the mission behind this place. I feel good about myself contributing to something good."
"The first time I came here I was amazed at how much variety they have and how ordered it is here," said Joshi, as she stood in the middle of the store, near some puzzle games about the continents. "It's like a real store, and it's free. It's not just dumped in here."

She could not have found the internship without the help of Newman, UC adjunct professor and intern director in communication. "She has so many contacts. She thought this job would be a good match for me," Joshi said.

The 22-year-old also loves the welcoming atmosphere at Crayons to Computers. "I look at it as a Crayons family. Diversity is welcomed and protected here," said Joshi, who earned a diploma in personnel management and industrial relations at the N.M. Institute of Management Studies and her undergraduate degree at the M.L. Dahanukar College of Commerce, both in Mumbai. "The volunteers are very enthusiastic about what they are doing and they are really dedicated.

"All the volunteers and staff at Crayons have been supportive of this whole process of doing the survey," she added.

In turn, Crayons to Computers has been lucky to have Joshi as an intern, says Greber. "This is extremely valuable to us. We could not afford to hire someone with her expertise." The agency has been so pleased with her that it has managed to find funds to extend Joshi's residency.

"We welcome Ambuja's help in determining qualitative outcomes of our program. To date, those results have only been anecdotal. Measuring our impact through her survey will better serve our operation, and ultimately our teachers and their students," said Crayons to Computers CEO Shannon Carter.

Joshi hopes to receive about 300 survey responses to analyze during her final weeks at the store. She expects to complete her master's degree by June 2003. After fall term ends, she hopes to begin looking for a full-time position in human resources or corporate communications.


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