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Internship program does students justice

It’s not as if Allison Gilmore was dead set on attending law school.

But, as a Legal Studies and Sociology major at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she figured it was merely the next logical step. Her experience last summer shattered that preconception.

Gilmore is also pursuing a certificate in Criminal Justice and, as such, needed to complete a summer internship. She found one in the Juvenile Court Intake Department of Children’s Court Services in her native Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The experience proved transformative.

Gilmore shadowed social workers on in-home family visits and interviews with children. She accompanied juveniles to workshops on crime and drug abuse and went on ride-alongs with police officers. She even helped remove children from abusive homes.

“I was so happy that I got that real-life experience,” Gilmore says. “I can explore other careers within the criminal justice system without pursuing law.”

The internship gave her a new perspective on juvenile delinquents -“I really learned that every kid we came in contact with...they were a victim in the first place,” she says. And it sparked an interest in working directly with children and families. She’s now planning to pursue a Master of Social Work.

Gilmore is far from the first student to find value in the Criminal Justice internship program, which dates to the early 1980s. Each summer, roughly 85 undergraduates participate in the program, which consists of 10-week placements covering 300 hours in local, state and federal agencies, nonprofits or businesses throughout Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota and northern Illinois. The sites range from police departments to drug treatment and rehabilitation facilities.

“Students get this intense learning experience,” says Carolyn Lesch, Criminal Justice Certificate Program adviser and the instructor of the internship course, Legal Studies/Sociology 694 & Social Work 663: Criminal Justice Field Internship.

“They’re given responsibility; they’re integral to the running of that agency. They become a part of the staff. It’s hard for them to leave at the end.”

Most students complete their internship between their junior and senior years, which Lesch says allows them to reconcile the theory in their course work with their real-world experiences when they return to school in the fall.

“It changes their understanding of how things work and helps them bring in what we truly refer to as the liberal arts education - being able to see things from multiple perspectives,” she says.

As effective as the internship program is, though, participation comes at a significant cost to students. In addition to paying for the three-credit course and professional clothing for their placements, they lose out on 300 hours of potential work time during the summer - the prime money-making time for college students. Lesch puts the total cost at around $5,000 for each student.

Thanks to a generous gift from Audrey J. Harris (BA’33, Political Science), the Center for Law, Society and Justice has been able to offer $1,000 awards the past three summers. Harris left an endowment to the College of Letters & Science when she died in 2001, and the College in turn directed the income to the Center. Last summer, the Center distributed awards to nine students, including Gilmore and Lisa Xiong.

The award helped out so much,” says Xiong, who interned with the Client Services Unit of the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office. “It’s really hard juggling the internship and a job.”

Read more about the experiences of our award recipients.

Audrey J. Harris (BA'33)