(BPT) – It’s not news that the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on learning opportunities for high school and college students. Unfortunately, that’s been especially true for underrepresented students, who often face roadblocks in accessing professional opportunities.

One glaring issue is that the in-person internships so crucial to on-the-job experience have been largely unavailable in this time of remote learning. As a result, students are missing out on the chance to participate in real-world work settings, gaining practical new skills, networking with other professionals and growing further in their careers.

That’s a big deal, given the importance of that experience to both employers, who are seeking to hire future leaders, and job applicants. Prior to the pandemic, a 2019 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 58% of graduating college seniors who received full-time job offers had completed internships — and notably, they received 16% more job offers than those not privy to internships.

The good news? Nonprofit organization The Center for Excellence in Life (TCEL) has stepped up to launch the first-ever paid virtual internship program geared specifically toward underrepresented students and uniquely focused on nurturing students beyond job skills in a specific field. This program already has served more than 80 Black, Latinx and Asian students in the U.S. in 2020. And with help from new supporters, its founders hope to provide many more with valuable work experiences throughout 2021 and beyond.

“Today’s students are our future workforce and leaders, but even with hope on the horizon for COVID-19, the negative consequences for underrepresented students can be long-lasting,” notes TCEL founder Mary Stutts. “At TCEL, we seek to help students understand what is possible and achieve their goals, by providing access, connections, exposure, and development of the ‘whole person.’”

Here’s what you should know about the program, whether you’re a prospective intern, a company wishing to participate or a donor interested in providing financial support for underrepresented students:

Internships are available in multiple fields. TCEL arranges remote learning opportunities in disciplines ranging from STEM fields to communications, finance, life sciences, fashion, digital entertainment and more. The internships are structured so company mentors regularly work online with participants to help them experience practical, real-life settings and situations, as they develop the multifaceted skillsets and perspectives the future workforce needs.

And the program is intended to be accessible to all — for example, in 2020, 13% of the TCEL interns without access to a computer completed the program using only their phones.

Supporting the “whole person” is key. For TCEL interns, education goes beyond specific career tracks, with every intern participating in the “Whole Person” track. Access to this unique training teaches interns how to define a personal brand, build a career while balancing multiple interests, better understand personal finances and care for their mental health.

“The TCEL interns I spoke with wanted to better understand financial topics,” notes John Clay, a vice president at Morgan Stanley and TCEL mentor. “As a result, I joined forces with TCEL to continue providing financial mentoring sessions for all cohorts, to build foundations for future interns’ personal and professional successes.”

Mental health struggles are at a dangerous high for young people. More than 90% of TCEL’s 2020 interns wrote in their application essays of experiences with anxiety and depression, which have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, racial and social unrest, and a lack of opportunity. That’s why Kaiser Permanente became a TCEL sponsor. Its mental health professionals will provide mental health-focused mentoring sessions — so that participants are more equipped to help themselves and others.

Would-be interns should apply now. Because the goal is to impact students early in their education, interns can apply as high school juniors and seniors or college freshmen and sophomores. In 2021, internships will be available in the spring, summer and fall. Throughout the program, students receive stipends to help cover expenses as they work, since unpaid internships present a barrier for some students.

“My goal is to serve as an ambassador for the United Nations, and I know that there’s a great need for more women and people of color in ambassadorship roles,” notes TCEL intern Kaylyn Goode, a George Washington University sophomore studying international affairs. “The TCEL internship provided me with important connections and knowledge as I work to achieve great things.”

Donors and supporters are needed. To thrive, TCEL needs more financial support from individual and corporate donors who believe in the importance of supporting underrepresented young people and helping to build paths to success. Additionally, TCEL is actively searching for industry leaders and companies willing to share their expertise.

Recently, TCEL was one of the first nonprofits to receive a contribution from Life Science Cares, a newly formed consortium of Bay Area life science companies leveraging employee expertise and corporate profits to tackle society’s greatest social issues including pervasive racial and socioeconomic inequalities.

The program arose from humble beginnings. Stutts, a foster child from a young age, credits her foster mother (a special education teacher) with teaching her that all people are valuable regardless of their labels. While achieving a successful career in the biotech industry, Stutts developed a passion for nurturing underrepresented youth and founded TCEL to cultivate creative, academic, professional, entrepreneurial and life skills. She and her daughter Loren created the TCEL internship program to address disadvantages from the combined forces of the pandemic and racial injustice.

Supported by major corporations such as Blue Shield, W2O Group and others, the virtual internship program has been enormously uplifting. Donors and supporters can visit TheExcellentLifeCenter.org for more information.

TCEL’s overall mission is to mentor, inspire and empower youth and adult professionals in the pursuit of excellence. Potential participants in the TCEL Virtual Internship Program are encouraged to apply at TheExcellentLifeCenter.org.

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