Project SEARCH provides internships for campus work

Maddi Anderson Managing Editor

Every day, six interns report to the SDSU campus to complete their rotation work and curriculum through the Project SEARCH program. The interns take part in daily lessons, work and reflection in order to reach the program’s goal to find each intern competitive employment by the end of the year long program. 

Project SEARCH is an international program established in 1996 at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and currently there are over 200 Project SEARCH sites, according to job coach Kyrsten Zimmerman. Planning began in 2012 to make the SDSU campus a host site for the program, and after following the licensing process and reaching agreement with Project SEARCH, SDSU became the third host site in the state of South Dakota. 

Zimmerman said SDSU is the only university based site in the state, with two other sites at the Avera medical centers in Sioux Falls and Aberdeen. The ultimate goal of the program is to find competitive employment for each intern, which includes an “integrated setting, year-round work, 20 plus hours of work per week and pay of minimum wage or higher,” said project coordinator Larry Ayres.

The establishment of the project at SDSU was a joint effort between the Brookings School District and Career Advantage. Once SDSU was made a host site, one intern from Watertown and five interns from Brookings were recruited through an application and selection process Ayres said. 

According to Project SEARCH requirements, interns must have completed all requirements for graduation and have a desire to work competitively at the conclusion of the program. The program focuses on teaching the interns marketable job skills such as nutrition, wellness and money management.

“It’s a holistic program, we have seen a lot of growth and a lot of maturity,” Zimmerman said. The interns will complete three rotations lasting 10-12 weeks, throughout the course of the program. Currently, interns are completing their second rotation at a variety of places including Aramark Food Service, the University Bookstore, Residential Life, and the Wellness Center according to Ayres. 

“I think it is great for her and us. It teaches her to work with people and it puts her in a working setting to help her grow, and become more comfortable … help her to be ready for a different job,” said Caroline Scheffert, sophomore agricultural science major, on working with Kat, an intern currently placed at the University Bookstore.

Other than reporting to their workplaces, interns also attend a 30-minute class in the morning. During the class they work on the curriculum formed by the Project SEARCH and then at the end of the day, they come together to reflect and write in journals Ayres said. 

Heidi Sonnenburg, a Project SEARCH intern who worked at the Ag Heritage Museum archiving and now works at Papa John’s, said she has learned a large variety of skills due to her involvement in the program. Some of the skill she learned included how to archive brochures for the museum and how to make breadsticks and clean properly at Papa John’s. Sonnenburg said the greatest thing she has learned however is to stay positive. “Have a positive attitude; if you’ve had a terrible morning, come to work with a smile on your face, even if it is a bad day, it usually gets better,” Sonnenburg said.

“Being able to share success is a big part of what we do,” Zimmerman said. Sharing their successes and challenges is what their reflection time is all about. The reflection time gives the interns an opportunity to share what went well, and it “gives a chance to improve on certain things,” Ayres said. 

“I think it is great that Kat is working with us, it’s not that she ‘gets’ to work with us, but she wants to work with us, and we want her to have that opportunity,” said Sadie Pence, another University Bookstore employee.

Zimmerman also emphasized their goal of connecting the program with SDSU’s campus as much as possible. One way they have given back was through a project done by grad students who worked with the group of interns as a part of their capstone project. “It was a great way to get connected with campus. We want to give back in whatever way we can,” Zimmerman said. 

Ayres also said the SDSU site of Project SEARCH just received the Avera Tradition of Caring and KELOLAND Grant. The grant will go towards public service announcements and spreading awareness so that the opportunity is known across the state, considering the three locations are all on the eastern side and interns can be accepted from all areas. 

“We are just excited, applying for and being rewarded a grant in our first year allows us to increase awareness of the program so that we can serve more students,” Zimmerman said. 

Looking forward in the program, Ayres said he hopes the program continues to grow and they are hoping to reach their goal of having 10-12 interns. Both Zimmerman and Ayres feel that the program has been progressing greatly and so far, things are going smoothly. “I couldn’t imagine it going any better than it is,” Ayres said.