It’s no secret that internships have become a vital part of the college experience. And students at the College of Charleston find all kinds of internship opportunities to augment their learning and bolster their real-world skills. They fulfill these roles on campus, around Charleston, out of the state, sometimes out of the country and even online.

That’s exactly what Robert Rosso has been doing. As a senior double majoring in political science and economics with two minors in environmental and sustainability studies and history, his days are full. Yet, Rosso knows that internships are crucial and can be among the most impactful experiences a college student can have.

Robert Rosso

Robert Rosso

This past summer, Rosso was one of nearly a dozen paid interns working in the College’s Center for Sustainable Development. Each semester, the center offers internships in a wide array of areas from garden management and food security to social justice and community outreach.

“I was involved with the STARS report,” Rosso explains. “It’s a rating given to universities by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). We received a silver rating last year, and the leaders at the center wanted me to find ways that we can improve that and achieve the gold level. That would be important for the College’s reputation. It would mean that we’re genuinely practicing what we preach, that we’re not just teaching sustainable practices, but we’re implementing them as well.”

Rosso says his role enabled him to explore a broad range of areas.

“I focused mostly on water use, energy consumption, procurement and the College’s waste stream,” he says. “Part of my internship involved examining other institutions and, in that process, I discovered a number of low-cost policy solutions that could save the College money.”

Throughout the summer, Rosso says he felt well supported by those overseeing his work, which gave him confidence in the skills he was gaining.

“Ultimately, doing this work involved a fair bit of strategic decision-making on my part and applying analytical skills,” he says. “And those are things that you’re always going to need in life whether you go to graduate school or head into the workforce right away.”

Suzanna Ellison

Suzanna Ellison

Suzanna Ellison ’20 agrees. She’s been an intern with the center for several years, spending a good deal of her time as the center’s community gardens partnership intern.

“I took on a leadership role in developing partnerships with the different gardens across campus,” says Ellison, who graduated this summer with a degree in biology and a minor in environmental and sustainability. “In part, this involved working with the CofC Food Alliance, a group that connects the various food security initiatives here on campus. One personal goal was to see that the produce from our student gardens was used by students in need, or at least used most efficiently. But I was also intent on creating more awareness around how you can grow or get produce, how to harvest it, what is in season and how you might prepare it and cook it.”

Sophomore Jay Medina, who is double-majoring in data science and German, spent much of this past summer helping leaders at the center re-envision the Changemaker Challenge program.

“Originally, my role was to find ideas for students to pursue in the program,” he says. “But it became clear that the program needed restructuring. So, we did a lot of analyzing and planning and ended up integrating it with the Sustainability Scholars program. Now, we’re calling it the Cougar Changemakers Program, and it’s an optional engagement opportunity for students seeking change. It provides opportunities for them to offer their own ideas for emphasizing sustainability on campus.”

Jay Medina

Jay Medina

One aspect of the internship experience that Ellison and Medina identify as a highlight was participating in in a reading group the center’s internship coordinator Ashley Lavender created. Lavender, who also teaches at the College, was intent on helping the interns work through their concerns about issues of racism and inequity against the backdrop of this summer’s protests regarding policing and social justice. It was an initiative that exemplifies the center’s holistic approach to sustainability and complements its vision of building an intentional, inclusive community by educating and empowering its student-interns.

The group read Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, which explores the systemic nature of racism and how to move beyond it.

RELATED: Find out how the Center for Sustainable Development partnered with Addlestone Library to create a digital collection of anti-racist literature.

“I think it’s really important to have conversations about racism,” says Ellison. “I think the reading group gave us all the space to move outside our comfort zone to talk about something that’s important to each of us, but not something that we’re well trained to address.”

For Medina, the conversations were personal and powerful.

“I volunteered to lead the second discussion,” he says. “Racism has impacted my life personally, and I wanted us to address some pretty tough questions within the group. In my view, discussions like this provide two different kinds of spaces, one for learning and one to comfort the people who are most affected by this moment – Black people in America. It’s important to learn about and be an ally to other people of color. That means means educating myself on how to be an ally to Black people and learn about the Black experience in America – something I was able to make progress on through this reading group.”

Daniela Arenas

Daniela Arenas

And Daniela Arenas, a studio art major who served as the center’s social media and graphic design intern this past summer, appreciates that the internship helped her develop marketable skills for the workforce as well as a better understanding of social issues.

“One of the things that I value about interning at the center,” she says, “is that the staff and professors are not only your advisors, they’re there to help you grow in every way, personally and professionally. They make sure you’re aware of the many opportunities to participate in events and initiatives around campus. And one of those was the reading group.”

Arenas says she walked away with a new perspective.

“I’m from Bogota, Colombia, and, honestly, I didn’t realize what racism was until I moved to the U.S. I come from a classist society, which I understand, but I didn’t understand racism before joining the discussion group,” says Arenas, noting that she almost cried at hearing the experiences of others. “On the whole, the discussion group was a great opportunity to expand my awareness. And I would say the same of my internship experience in general.”

Check out the Center for Sustainable Development website for additional information about the internship program.