UW News

June 16, 2020

UW reinvents summer research, internships during COVID-19

UW News

Woman standing against outside of law school building

After her summer internship was deferred, UW Law student Mary Ruffin started volunteering with the COVID-19 Clearinghouse as a way to gain legal experience and help the community.Greg Olsen/UW School of Law


Headed into her final year of law school, Mary Ruffin had planned to spend the summer at a private law firm, where she had secured an internship – a near rite of passage, among law students, to future employment.

But the internship, like so many summer jobs for college students in so many industries, was put on hold, the victim of the COVID-19 economy that has left millions out of work nationwide.

Yet Ruffin was undeterred, and she started reaching out to fellow students, faculty, alumni and attorneys to see what might be available – any kind of legal research or project to keep her skills sharp and her resume competitive.

In the meantime, faculty and administrators with the University of Washington School of Law were working with local law firms to find solutions for the dozens of students in need of the professional development experience that defines the summers between years of law school and often leads to a full-time job. Together, they came up with the COVID-19 Clearinghouse, a collection of short-term, remote, pro bono projects for private firms and nonprofits that mainly address legal questions specific to life during the pandemic. And through the Clearinghouse, Ruffin received her first assignment for a client: researching employment laws for essential workers and their families.

“A lot of students go into law school because law can have a profound impact on people’s lives,” Ruffin said. “This seemed like a really good use of our time, when things are constantly changing, and it’s good for students to get involved and feel like we’re part of a community.”

The COVID-19 Clearinghouse is just one of the ways that faculty and staff across the UW have revamped summer research internships and worked with outside partners and employers to involve students in a remote working environment, even for jobs that would normally be out in the field.

Bringing the outside in

Transforming what are usually outdoor or in-the-lab tasks has required creativity. Just ask almost anyone in the College of the Environment.

The Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean’s nine-week research internship program accepts about a dozen undergraduates from around the country. Students are paired with a project that’s meant to match their interests, either on the UW campus with a faculty member, or at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration offices in Seattle. The cohort is housed in UW residence halls, participates in regular activities and goes on the occasional field trip.

Not this year. All 10 interns will work remotely, some on projects that were reconfigured to be online, and a few who agreed to take a remote project that was completely different from what program administrator Jed Thompson would have offered, pre-pandemic.

Gone, for example, is any assignment involving the always-popular “ship time.” But time on the computer provides valuable skills, too, useful for oceanography and so many other science fields.

Both Julie Keister and Randie Bundy, faculty in the School of Oceanography, have converted internships that would otherwise have been out on the water or inside in the lab. Instead of examining zooplankton for Keister or using mass spectrometers to measure metals in water for Bundy, the interns will analyze data from previously obtained samples, learning new computer programs and other means of identification and measurement.

Elsewhere in the College of the Environment, Washington Sea Grant’s science communication fellow would normally spend much of their time bringing safety and water-quality messages directly to the people – literally, surveying boaters, promoting education at festivals and sharing materials at docks and marinas. But until lockdown restrictions loosen significantly, assistant director for communications MaryAnn Wagner said, the fellowship is steering toward writing and social media: from press releases about marine debris disposal and pump-out stations, to tweets of recipes and sea-life trivia.

Adapting alongside employers

Many internships and practicum experiences rely on other partners and agencies. And as the reality of the pandemic and remote working arrangements became clear, UW faculty and staff started contacting their usual job sites to determine what, if anything, could be modified.

The Program on the Environment requires its environmental studies majors to complete a year-long capstone project that includes a winter or summer field component, pairing students with outside organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and King County, said Sean McDonald, a senior lecturer and the program’s capstone instructor. But ahead of the summer, some of the smaller nonprofit partners tightened their budgets, leaving some job sites unavailable.

Man walking down street

Nick Tritt, a student in the Program on the Environment, conducted research for his capstone project remotely. His project, for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, examined other cities’ ideas for a “15-minute neighborhood,” a community where everything is accessible within a 15-minute walk.Dennis Wise/U. of Washington


“A huge selling point is that we embed students in these organizations, and largely, all that has disappeared,” McDonald said.

About one-third of students decided to postpone to a later quarter, while the remaining 21 students are pressing on with a summer assignment, albeit a remote one. The program’s job fair proceeded via Zoom, with students “meeting” prospective employers in breakout rooms.

In the School of Public Health’s dietetic program, graduate students are training to become registered dietitians, primarily destined for hospitals, clinics and public health settings. Students complete seven rotations, including at least one stint in a health care facility, and one stint in a concentration area such as public policy, school nutrition or public health practice.

But during the pandemic, the placements in health care settings are in flux, and program director Anne Lund has been working on ways to provide students the experiences they need to graduate this summer. For some students, this meant completing a second public health rotation and delaying the start of clinical work. An entire cohort of dietitian students, nationwide, is in the same boat, she said.

“Our dietetic program has taken an individualized approach to meet students’ educational and career goals,” Lund said. “We’re doing everything we can but there are still gaps in their experiences due to the pandemic. It’s a system-level problem, and the system needs to recognize that and respond with post-credentialing training opportunities.”

Partnering around the pandemic

The quest to secure employment after law school begins early: The summer between the first and second years is the “resume-building” internship that leads to the more career-focused second summer, when a successful experience at a firm or organization often ensures a job there after graduation.

Establishing the COVID-19 Clearinghouse was a collective effort, led by UW Law administrators and faculty, in consultation with alumni, retired attorneys, the Washington State Bar Association and several local firms, primarily Foster Garvey in Seattle. The pandemic had begun to generate many legal questions, and with the disappearance of so many paid jobs for law students, was there a way to address some of these issues, provide pro bono legal services to communities in need, and give students some of the experiences and skills practice they might get in a summer internship?

“There is a confluence of community need and student need,” said professor Christine Cimini, UW Law’s associate dean for experiential education, who collaboratively oversees the Clearinghouse with Haiyun Damon-Feng, co-chair of Foster Garvey’s pro bono committee. “We’re trying to take an otherwise challenging experience for students and turn it into a learning experience that builds their skills and enhances their future job prospects.”

The Clearinghouse matches students with supervising pro bono attorneys to tackle COVID-19 research projects that qualified legal service providers don’t have the capacity to undertake.  The matching is coordinated through a series of Google surveys: one for legal service providers to submit questions and projects they want students to address; another for attorneys who want to volunteer their time to student teams; a third for students to indicate their areas of interest.  To date, 66 UW law students have volunteered their time and skills.

The law schools at Seattle University and Gonzaga University joined the effort, and now there are 14 active projects involving dozens of students, many from the UW.

Mary Ruffin’s assignment with Foster Garvey is one of the projects that have concluded. Under the supervision of attorney Mikaela Louie, a UW Law alum, Ruffin and students Ysabel Mullarky and Dailey Koga tackled the employment rights of essential workers who live with people at high risk of the COVID-19 infection. The final product was a memo for the client, the Northwest Justice Project, to use in counseling people in need of legal advice.

As society adjusts to the new normal of the pandemic, these opportunities for community engagement can continue, said Damon-Feng, who was key to facilitating the Clearinghouse and creating a list of project needs.

“Moving forward, when students may not be getting the employment experiences they need, we hope that we can get them experiences and skills training through the Clearinghouse,” Damon-Feng said. “The Clearinghouse is also helping to meet increased need from the nonprofit and legal services community. And from the law firm side, we want to contribute to these efforts and get more people involved in this work.”

UW Law faculty have developed a summer course, too: “Lawyering in the Time of COVID-19,” designed to provide students with a substantive overview of big-picture issues, as well as skill development. The course will be taught in modules related to legal issues central to the pandemic, such as immigration and detention, unemployment, criminal justice and detention, and small-business issues. The second half of the course will pair students with local practitioners to work on a project or case in their area of expertise. Whether through opportunities with the Clearinghouse, or in the classroom, faculty say, students have a chance to learn about the law as it relates to an unprecedented event.

It’s not the summer experience that students expected, said Elana Matt, the law school’s interim assistant dean for student and career services. But a can-do attitude can help.

“Students gain key legal skills through a variety of experiences, and students should remember to stay focused on continuing to learn, even if their summers don’t look how they hoped. Remember — this is just one small time in your very long career,” she said.