Inspiring Graduate Student Success

For the first time in University of Pennsylvania history, eligible need-based students at all 12 University of Pennsylvania graduate schools have access to apply for financial assistance for unpaid or underpaid summer internships. 

Internship funding was a recurring need that Keshara Senanayake J’23 kept hearing in conversations with fellow students. It became clear to the former Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GASPA) Vice President of Programming that disparities existed between the schools. While some schools featured robustly funded internship programs thanks to decades of significant alumni support, others had students who required support for career-building summer opportunities.  

In response to this recurring need, GAPSA generously gave a $700,000 gift to Career Services to establish Penn’s first university-wide Graduate Summer Internship Program. Over $200,000 of the gift went to immediate disbursement this past summer. The remaining $500,000 will be put into a permanently endowed fund to provide continual financial support for Penn graduate students.  

The Graduate Summer Internship Program aims to defray costs associated with the summer experience, encompassing travel expenses, living costs, and other related expenditures. The funding amounts are determined based on the internship’s career development value, duration, and identified needs of students. The available funding levels that can be awarded will be determined on a yearly basis. 

“When you hear about a problem it just makes sense to do something about it. We chose to create this fund, in hopes of immediately supporting students this past summer and to create the momentum to structurally address this issue,” said Senanayake, a recent graduate of the Carey Law School. “For a long time, we’ve heard this was a problem, but there was no data to back it up. Now, we can collect data about the need and hopefully encourage alumni to support this initiative with the newfound tangibles.” 

As the governing body for the approximately 13,000 Penn graduate students, GAPSA is responsible for funding each of the 12 schools through student groups, events, and initiatives for student success. Due to the pandemic halting several of its programs, GAPSA had accumulated a significant amount of carryover funds.  

Director of the Graduate Student Center Meredith Wooten raised the idea that GAPSA could address the lack of internship funding for graduate students. Senanayake found that Career Services offered a Summer Funding program that helps undergraduates take advantage of impactful internship opportunities that are beyond their financial resources. In late February, board members met with Career Services representatives to install a similar initiative for graduate students.  

GAPSA quickly passed a resolution to create the Summer Internship Funding Program, representing the largest gift the organization has ever provided. Senanayake credited the GAPSA assembly for recognizing the need to provide resources to better the lives of graduate students.  

“I am a firm believer that no student should be denied opportunities because of a lack of financial resources,” Senanayake said. “Internships are a prerequisite for career and professional development, and a number in your bank account should not limit your potential. I was able to attend Penn because of the generous support of alumni and the school’s moral obligation to reduce barriers for others.  

“Paying it forward is instilled into the Penn DNA. I see it in our students, our alum, our trustees, our faculty, and our staff.”  

Paying it Forward

In its first year, the Graduate Summer Internship Program extended financial support to 71 graduate students representing eight graduate schools. Among them, the School of Engineering had the most recipients with 32 awardees. Following closely behind, the Graduate School of Education had 13 students benefiting from the program. Meanwhile, the School of Arts and Sciences, School of Social Policy & Practice, and the Weitzman School of Design each had seven students selected.   

“The summer experience available to students like me, coming from a First-Generation Low-Income background is nothing short of remarkable,” School of Engineering and Applied Science graduate student Ruohu Lin said in her summer blog. “It is an opportunity to gain invaluable industry experience that will undoubtedly shape the trajectory of our careers. As a budding software engineer, the chance to immerse myself in a real-world tech environment was a dream I eagerly seized upon.” 

A demonstrative need for internship funding for international students became apparent to Senanayake in his conversations with GAPSA peers. Inflation, currency devaluations, and various geopolitical, natural, and economic crises have exacerbated the financial struggles associated with living expenses during underfunded or unpaid internships.  

Forty-six percent of the inaugural Graduate Summer Internship Program awardees were international students.  

Director of Graduate Career Initiatives Joseph Barber highlighted that Penn Career Services received at least 10 applications from recent mothers or parents, some of whom were supporting several young children. He said this situation is more unique to the graduate student experience, emphasizing added costs associated with balancing an internship experience with finding and paying for childcare.  

Right People at the Right Time 

The Graduate Summer Internship Program’s rapid launch was made possible through the collaborative efforts of GAPSA and Penn administration.  

Senanayake credited Barber and Executive Director Barbara Hewitt of Penn Career Services for seamlessly materializing the initiative. He said they were both very receptive to graduate students’ needs and made connections across campus to quickly get the program available for the summer.

“Both have spent countless hours meeting with key stakeholders across the University to bring the program to life and have been advocates on the issue for years,” Senanayake added. “This initiative is a testament to having the right people at the right time.”

Career Services and the Graduate Student Center worked collaboratively to encourage GAPSA to provide meaningful support for graduate students. Barber noted that the Graduate Student Center laid a solid foundation for the Summer Internship Program’s success due to its strong relationships with GAPSA and their long-standing commitment to support the professional growth of graduate students. The Graduate Student Center shared valuable insights with Career Services about the funding application challenges experienced by graduate students.

Led by both Wooten and Associate Vice Provost for Graduate Education Anita Mastroieni, the Graduate Student Center spent countless hours and energy advising GAPSA, supporting their initiatives, and building strong relationships between student leaders and staff across campus. In particular, Wooten played a pivotal role in raising awareness about internship funding disparities and guiding GAPSA leaders throughout the entire process.

“Their feedback helped shape the proposal into something that could actually happen,” Senanayake added. “The staff at Penn University Life care deeply about the graduate student experience, and for that, I, and countless others, are incredibly grateful. “

Now, as an alumnus, Senanayake is comforted knowing that this fund will endure indefinitely, yet his ultimate aspiration is to inspire fellow alumni to champion programs and initiatives of this nature. The primary objective of this program is to create momentum in this space. GAPSA contributed generous donations toward establishing a perpetual endowed fund. For the program to persist and flourish, the indispensable backing of alumni and donors is crucial. 

Read about graduate student summer internship experiences on the Penn Career Services Summer Funding Blog.

The summer internships were game changers in the students’ career aspirations. 

They included: 

  • behavioral specialist internship, Center for Utilizing Behavioral Insights for Children at Save the Children
  • jet propulsion internship, NASA   
  • international education development internship, UNESCO’s International Institute for Education Planning in Dakar, Senegal
  • programming internship, SciFeCap
  • wildlife medicine internship, WildCare Oklahoma
  • policy analyst, Research for Action
  • software engineer, SkyIT
  • architecture heritage internship, Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage, New Delhi
  • intercultural communication specialist with refugees and asylees, Nationalities Service Center, Philadelphia
  • architecture internship, MASS Design Group, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
  • backend software developer, Roamer
  • AI Development Intern, Mentorz
  • Archeological and Heritage Preservation Internship, Al-Hiba Publication Project, Lagash, Iraq
  • Transit Strategic Planning and Analysis internship, SEPTA
  • Educational Planning and Policy internship, International Institute for Education for Planning, UNESCO, Paris, France