When the pandemic put summer jobs at risk in Boston, Northeastern stepped in to help

Teenagers and young adults share the results of their research projects during a virtual showcase of Boston’s Summer Youth Employment Program. This year, the city’s internship program went virtual in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Northeastern helped get them there. Screenshot by Northeastern University

Every summer, thousands of Boston youth participate in the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program—a program that connects teens and young adults in the city with an internship and a real income while they’re on vacation from school.

But this spring, as businesses and organizations all over the city temporarily shuttered to prevent the spread of COVID-19, officials faced a difficult dilemma: How do you run an internship program from home?

Other cities, including New York City and Baltimore, canceled or scaled back their youth jobs programs for the summer, leaving tens of thousands of teens and young adults without the summer jobs they were counting on—and leaving their families struggling to make up the lost income right when it was most needed.

Noa Carter is the program coordinator for the Department of Youth Engagement and Employment for the City of Boston and one of the organizers of the Summer Youth Employment Program. Screenshot by Northeastern University

Northeastern wanted to make sure that didn’t happen in Boston.

“As soon as COVID hit, we started meeting weekly to plan out what we could do to save the summer jobs program,” says Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor who’s been working with the City of Boston to study outcomes from its Summer Youth Employment Program for the last several years.

The program employs thousands of city residents between the ages of 14 and 21 in jobs that this year included beautification of municipal parks, designing a public health campaign around COVID-19, paid community college courses, and traditional internships—but online.

Modestino found that business leaders were willing to employ teens for the summer, but didn’t have much experience structuring a virtual internship, or even a platform to run one on.

Soon, a team of faculty and staff at Northeastern joined Modestino. The group put their heads together and came up with a simple solution: Using a software platform the university was already exploring for undergraduate education, Northeastern became the bridge between local businesses that weren’t sure how to organize virtual learning and the city youth participating in internships.

“Our intent is to support the city using the platform we have and our expertise in structuring these work-based learning experiences for students, to make sure they’re successful,” says Kemi Jona, assistant vice chancellor for digital innovation and enterprise learning at Northeastern, and who is one of the facilitators of the program.

The software platform, built by a company called Practera, provides an online space for teenage participants in the summer employment program to meet and work on projects virtually.

Antonelli Mejia, who works in Boston Public Schools and is a senior career coach for the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program, says that teens have the opportunity to learn and collaborate on the platform.

“For many of the youth, this is the first time they’re working on something that’s totally online and maybe the first time they’re really relying on each other,” he says.

Mejia oversaw a number of participant groups this summer—one that stood out was a team that did a project about implicit bias, which is a term used to describe a stereotype applied unconsciously to a group of people.

The participants learned about the concept and how it shows up in their daily lives and communities, Mejia says. Some youth discovered implicit bias in the negative attitudes people in their communities held about the natural hair styles of Black women, he says. (It’s a bias that can be found across the country.)

The teens and young adults did research on local Boston organizations to find which were actively training employees about implicit bias and how to combat it, and which weren’t, Mejia says, in order to provide solutions to the organizations that weren’t.

“Once they started to learn more, they were able to make those real-life connections,” he says.

And, according to Modestino’s research, participation in the Summer Youth Employment Program has benefits beyond just what the teens and young adults learn over the course of the summer. Participation in the program is based on a lottery system. For the last five years, Modestino has compared the outcomes for people who get into the program with the outcomes for those who didn’t.

For the younger participants, she’s found that the program increases high school graduation rates by 6 percent and for the older participants, it improves employment and wage outcomes, particularly for racial minorities.

Modestino has also found that participation in the program leads to a 30 percent reduction in violent and property crimes.

“What we’re seeing suggests that a behavioral change occurs during the program,” she says. “The teens and young adults who participate are learning work habits—how to show up on time, and stay focused and organized. These are life lessons that carry on after the program ends.”

The research also suggests that participants are using their summer income to “fill the gaps” at home, Modestino says—using the extra money to pay a phone bill or buy groceries when funds are tight. And with so many members of the community losing work due to the pandemic, this summer income is more important than ever.

“It’s really helping families too,” she says.

Given all these benefits, it was critical to the team at Northeastern that the summer jobs program continue this year, particularly because it offers teens and young adults in underserved neighborhoods the opportunity to “level the playing field” among their more privileged peers, says Yvonne Rogers, who is the senior director of industry engagement strategy in the university chancellor’s office.

“With our commitment to lifelong learning and the communities we operate in, it was absolutely essential that we step up and partner with the city to create these opportunities for our youth,” Rogers says.

And, she says, the successful implementation of the summer program offers opportunities to get it running in new iterations in the future, particularly as COVID-19 continues to disrupt learning and working across the country.

“What’s important to me is that baked into this program is a way for youth to begin to imagine what their futures might be, and it’s ensuring that our youth have the skills to prepare them for the rest of their lives,” she says.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.