Alex Tate lands in the governor's chair on an assignment for the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services. Photo courtesy of Sally Murrow

The governor's chair isn't likely what you'd think of when hearing about an IT internship. But students at South Puget Sound Community College got to sit in Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's chair while they were on a mission to switch out computers and update his phones.

Through an internship with the Washington State Department of Enterprise Services, students gain valuable work experience as they serve about 2,000 customers across multiple state agencies and the governor's office. And they have the same credentials and access that regular technicians have.

"They're able to get in places I think that they wouldn't be able to otherwise," said Sally Murrow, program coordinator of the Cooperative Work Experience/Internship Program at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia.

Over the past two years, the internship program between the community college and the state department has helped prepare 13 students to pursue careers in information technology. Twelve of those students kept interning past their initial requirement of three months, and of those, nine graduated school. Five of those graduates are now working for the state, which helps replenish the government IT workforce as more workers retire.

"The program's been great for us because our shop is so diverse in the amount of stuff we work on, and having the interns is just kind of a fresh face into the organization, and it also gives fresh thoughts and perspectives," said Jim Sampson, the internship coordinator and desktop support specialist for the department.

The internship program been so well received at the department that it expanded to the whole division and was just recently expanded to the whole agency.

Internship acts as launching pad for IT careers

Students apply and interview for the internship just like they would for a job. But instead of being hired for their IT skills, they're hired for their willingness to learn and their attitude, Sampson said. As long as they have those two things, the opportunities will be endless for what they'll learn.

Intern Alex Tate had always helped his family with their computers, but he wasn't great at it, he said. He came to the community college to learn how to solve IT problems so he could better help others and at a higher level.

The 29-year-old graduate of the community college applied for the internship so he could get actual work experience in areas including desktop support, networking and virtual machines. And it's kept him on his toes.

"One of the things I like about this internship is that every day, you don't know what you're going to get," Tate said.

Another man also picked computer science as a third career so he could help others. Walter Gosciewski is a former Marine officer who has a bachelor's degree and went on to build a career in the wood and cabinetry industry. When his company downsized, he came to South Puget Sound Community College to prepare himself for a third career and is now finishing up his second year.

In the internship program, he's not only worked on computers and phones for the governor, but also helped an advanced computer programmer with a question about Microsoft Office. To teach something to a high-level computer programmer, the 54-year-old said, was a neat experience.

"I think it's wrong for computer users to be frustrated with their computers, and so my goal in life is to help computer users embrace their computer and help them get rid of that frustration and do their work," Gosciewski said.

One of the other interns, Chris Vella, is also embarking on a new career in IT. He had worked in retail, customer service and meat cutting previously. But after a divorce, the 35-year-old decided to make some big changes in his life.

He had a strong background in computers and wanted to advance in a field where he could apply the skills he's built up through school and life.

"I want to be able to contribute more knowledge to a career than just be hired for being able to carry a box around," Vella said.

Nearly two years ago, he landed at South Puget Sound Community College and is applying his knowledge through his internship with the state department.

At the end of the unpaid internship, students receive three credits for their work, and their final grade comes from both the employer and a faculty member they've been assigned to. Sampson also prepares them for what they need to do to land a full-time government job in case that's what they're interested in.

While an internship partnership like this does require a time investment from employers, it's giving these interns a shot at work experience that could help them launch into a successful career.  That's why Murrow encourages businesses to partner up with community colleges in their area on internship programs.

"Yes it might take some time, more paperwork or whatever, but you're actually giving someone an opportunity and making a difference in their career," Murrow said. "So try to be that person who can make a difference to a student."

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.