By Sarah McVicar
Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship
What do you think of when you hear “leader”? For Mee Cheng, Policy Analyst at Ramsey County, leadership is about much more than a title. Cheng sees leaders in the exceptional students she observes each year as they move through the Progressive Internship Program (PIP) – a partnership between Ramsey County, Metropolitan State University, and Saint Paul College that gives students the opportunity for real-life experience working in one or more of Ramsey County’s many departments.
Established in 2015, the PIP targets students who are completing two-year degrees at Saint Paul College before moving on to continue their studies at Metropolitan State University. One of those students is Maryam Arab, a Metropolitan State junior and TRIO program peer mentor who holds a passion for social justice and lifting the voices of those who are too seldom heard.
Arab works in the Policy and Planning Division at Saint Paul City Hall at the Ramsey County Courthouse and is one of the three new Progressive Interns in the 2019-2020 cohort.
The PIP, according to Cheng, seeks talented, motivated individuals (many of whom are non-traditional students) with wide-ranging life experiences who reflect the demographics and diversity of the broader Ramsey County community.
“I really appreciate students bringing that diversity into the county,” Cheng says. “They’re motivated and excited to absorb as much as possible. They see things through a different lens.”
This unique lens is likely part of what has helped Arab to enjoy and excel at one of her favorite internship activities: community outreach, which is currently focused on education and awareness-raising around the 2020 Census. Arab is the oldest of five children in a Somali household and recognizes the importance of understanding that the people she interacts with come from different cultures, belief systems, and ways of approaching the issues. She considers that recognition key “to avoid making assumptions and judgments based on [one’s] own lifestyle.”
Although Cheng doesn’t work directly with interns, a critical part of her job with the PIP (one of several hats she wears within county government) is to support students like Arab in taking full advantage of the opportunities the program offers, and guide them toward the experiences and skills they need to pursue their goals.
“I really encourage [students] to take initiative,” Cheng says, “and to seek out opportunities to lead and grow” – opportunities such as internal trainings on a wide variety of topics (e.g., multicultural competence) and a monthly speaker series that exposes students to various careers in government (an event Arab describes as especially helpful).
Cheng sees leadership development as a cornerstone of the program.
“[The PIP] interns are leaders,” Cheng says. “The unique experience, energy, and ideas they bring are immensely valuable to the county.”
For Cheng, the greatest success is watching students not only do well, but stretch beyond their comfort zones and develop as young professionals. “I get to watch them grow from beginning ’til end… [When they finish the program], I see confident individuals; it’s very exciting.”
As the students gain experience, skills, and confidence, the county also benefits in hugely important ways.
“We know demographics are changing in our county,” Cheng says, noting the critical need to attract young, diverse, talent representative of the larger community into the county workforce. The PIP is one important aspect of the ongoing county-wide efforts to address that challenge.
Some students stay with the county beyond their internship, and Cheng hopes even more do so as students are attracted to the experience and culture they find at the county. She describes the county workplace culture as founded on relationship-building, integrity, respect, community, and valuing the diverse experience and expertise each individual brings. Cheng also points to a focus on equity on racial, structural, and policy levels.
Arab’s experience in the PIP has helped to further her passion for equity and inclusion, among the other pressing issues she sees in our government.
“There’s a lot of change we need as a country,” Arab says. “As I mature, I become more aware. There are so many issues that I feel called to address. We need better healthcare, better immigration policy, better access to education. Every time I hear a story [from someone I interact with] I think of one more issue we need to work on!” Arab credits the program with exposing her to the many options available in government and the kind of career she wants to pursue, as well as teaching her how to thrive in a professional environment.
For students, like Arab, who may not have had comparable employment opportunities prior to the program, Cheng says the PIP can be a great stepping stone toward a variety of professional careers.
Cheng, Metropolitan State University’s PIP coordinator Victor Cole at the Institute for Community Engagement and Scholarship, and Saint Paul College’s Sheryl Saul, hope the PIP will enrich students with the skills and experience necessary to pursue their passion and goals, and enable them to make the changes they want to see in our larger society.
“I want students to feel empowered – both at their work in the county and beyond – to contribute to the greater good of our country,” Cheng says.