Starting Small

Unique internship grows careers and companies
By Rosalind Fournier • Photos by Steve Wood
Photo of Dalila Gonzalez and Vanessa Vargas looking at Latino News newspapers; headline: Starting Small
Unique internship grows careers and companies
By Rosalind Fournier • Photos by Steve Wood
When Vanessa Vargas graduated from UAB in 2013, she left with two advantages. One was a high-quality undergraduate degree in human resource management. The other was the hands-on career experience she had gained growing up in the family business, Latino News, a key media source for Alabama’s Hispanic community.
Vargas knew the latter was an asset a lot of her classmates didn’t have. “I had friends who were struggling even to learn business etiquette,” she remembers. “How do you network if you’ve never had to deal with people outside of school? How do you know how to present yourself?”
Eager to help today’s students navigate that difficult learning curve, Vargas—now manager of Latino News—opened her company’s doors to UAB’s Academic Small Business Alliance (ASBA) when it launched in 2015. The program specializes in placing UAB students in internships with small businesses in the Birmingham area.

Benefits both ways

UAB has a long history of working with local small businesses to help them grow, says ASBA Manager Demetria Scott. She works in Small Business Inclusion, a unit within UAB’s Facilities division, and recalls the brainstorming session that produced the idea for ASBA. “A group of us got together, and I presented the concept of bringing small businesses and students together to collaborate as it relates to building capacity, scalability, and accountability,” she says. It’s a perfect match: While students gain valuable experience, the businesses access additional brainpower they need to grow.
The Collat School of Business and the Facilities division, under the direction of Senior Facilities Officer Bob McMains, chipped in funds to start the program. ASBA began with Collat students—who are required to complete at least one internship before graduating—but has since expanded to include students from the schools of Engineering and Health Professions. Still other UAB schools have expressed interest in participating. “We’ve gone from nine students to 31 in five semesters,” McMains says. “And the number of participating businesses has quadrupled.”
ASBA internships work much like any other opportunity for on-the-job experience, except students are not compensated in the traditional way. Instead, they receive small scholarships set up through the business partnerships. “We found that a lot of these small businesses don’t have the financial structure to pay what it costs for an internship,” Scott explains. “So to make it a win-win situation, donations to the school are pooled with other resources in order to pay for these scholarships.”

Karlene Ball with patient using brain-training software in backgroundDalila Gonzalez (above, at right) filmed videos for Latino News with guidance from mentor Vanessa Vargas (at left). (At top) Gonzalez and Vargas review recent issues of the company’s newspaper.

Fine-tuning a career path

For students who sign up for ASBA, however, experience provides more motivation than money. They are interested in applying what they’re studying in school, getting their feet wet in an actual business setting where they can fine-tune their areas of interest. Several students have even received job offers after graduation from the companies where they interned.
Daniel Johnson already had some exceptional experience on his resume when he arrived at UAB, which he chose for the strength of its School of Engineering. The Madison, Alabama, native had joined the Air Force Reserve out of high school and served temporary-duty assignments around the United States as well as in Kuwait and Qatar. But with ambitions that include owning multiple small businesses, he feels there’s always more to learn. On his second ASBA internship, he worked with Strada Professional Services, a Birmingham-based engineering and consulting company. “I’m gaining mentors I can go back to if I have questions once I’m out of school,” says the sophomore in civil engineering. “I’m learning a lot about how the business works, how the engineers work, what software they use, and how they make deals with other companies. I'm also learning a good amount of business that I wouldn't get at school since I'm not a business student.”
Dalila Gonzalez, a senior in marketing who calls both Garden Grove, California, and Decatur, Alabama, home, has completed three internships. “In the beginning, I was just trying to learn; I wanted to do something new,” says Gonzalez, who gravitated toward UAB because of its student diversity. “I’ve had jobs before, but not related to my business career.”
While she’s gained valuable experience from all of her internships, the most memorable was with Vargas of Latino News. “I was in charge of their social media platforms,” Gonzalez says. “I learned to do some bookkeeping as well, and I helped the newspaper expand and become even better known in the community.”

Investments in the future

For her part, Vargas says she takes her role as a mentor seriously, tailoring each internship to the interests of both the student and the business. “It’s a learning experience for both of us,” she says. For example, a couple of interns were primarily interested in accounting, so she taught them to perform those functions for Latino News, freeing her to focus on other company goals. But Gonzalez, who interned there in spring 2017, told Vargas she hadn’t made up her mind about specific career goals and wanted to learn about everything. So Vargas let her work in different areas to see which ones piqued her interest. Gonzalez did managerial work, helped with payroll, and even filmed short videos in Spanish promoting weekend events.
“I think she appreciated gaining experience that could guide her wherever she leans in her professional life,” Vargas says.
Scott agrees. The small businesses “are making an investment in the students, their careers, and their development,” she says. “ASBA is unique because we help businesses grow by making things happen not only for themselves but for the students.”

• Discover the opportunities for learning and experience in the Collat School of Business and the School of Engineering.

Published March 2018