Urban Alliance Connects Underserved Students to Pathways That Lead to Economic Success
Our Community Partner Spotlight series introduces you to the people behind organizations that make impactful change in Alexandria, whether it’s environmental or community-focused. January is National Mentoring Month, the perfect time to talk about our partnership with Urban Alliance. Every year, AlexRenew hosts two Urban Alliance interns on its campus.
The most valuable resource a community has is its people, especially younger members, who will ultimately step in to continue the missions of the current generations. Urban Alliance is an organization that understands the importance of equipping young students with the tools and experience they’ll need to be successful, and they believe in creating opportunities for them to learn and develop as young professionals.
A youth development organization that is dedicated to helping students from under-resourced areas gain access to the opportunities and support they need to prepare for life after high school, Urban Alliance collaborates with local schools and businesses to match student interns with mentors who can provide real-world experience, guidance, and the ability to build social capital that will set them up for lasting success.
We are fortunate to have an opportunity to partner with Urban Alliance and host some of the hard-working students that are part of its program. We recently sat down with Urban Alliance Northern Virginia Executive Director Christine McCurdy to talk with her about the organization and how it impacts the community.
AlexRenew (AR): Can you give us a little bit of background about Urban Alliance, and how the organization developed this program?
Christine McCurdy (CM): In 1996, a young woman at Anacostia Senior High School in Washington, D.C. said that what young people really needed to be successful were real, meaningful jobs. Urban Alliance founder Andrew Plepler, then an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, listened, found that student an internship, and asked five of his friends to do the same for other students. This is how it all started.
Since 1996, Urban Alliance has connected over 5,000 students from underserved communities to professional internships with banks, hospitals, hotels, law firms, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and more. We’ve also served over 20,000 students through workforce readiness training. By providing evidence-based workforce interventions to thousands of economically-disadvantaged students in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, Northern Virginia, and Detroit, we have a proven track record of improving post-high-school outcomes for underserved youth.
Our core program targets underserved high school seniors, just on the cusp of adulthood. The High School Internship Program matches students with 9-month, paid, professional internships, job skills training, one-on-one mentoring, and ongoing post-program support to ensure that they remain connected to pathways toward economic success post-high school.
AR: For those who aren’t familiar, can you talk a little bit about how our two organizations work together?
CM: Urban Alliance was founded in 1996, but we weren’t in the Northern Virginia area until 2013, which is when our partnership with AlexRenew began. AlexRenew CEO Karen Pallansch connected with us through the Eisenhower Partnership – a public-private partnership that promotes economic growth and quality of life along the Eisenhower corridor – and expressed interest in having a student intern. We started with one student and in the subsequent six years, that has grown to two students each year.
What’s special about our relationship with AlexRenew is that our students get to interact with everyone from their direct supervisor all the way up to the CEO. Not only that, but AlexRenew rotates students through different departments so they get exposure to a variety of functions like HR, marketing, communications, engineering, and the water-testing lab. This rotation is an incredibly unique and formative experience for the students; they explore their interests while tackling diverse projects.
AR: Why is your relationship with AlexRenew important?
CM: The AlexRenew team goes above and beyond to show up for our students. In addition to providing internship opportunities and mentoring our students, they’re always present at our training sessions and networking events where students practice what we call “21st century skills,” or soft skills, like communication, , creating a good first impression, and elevator pitches.
We recognize how deeply the team at AlexRenew cares for our students and the lasting impression their staff leaves on them. They really understand our mission and what a big role the experience at their organization plays in the students’ development. I mentioned the rotation model earlier—students may enter the program with interests in one area, and we’ve seen how that can change depending on how much they’re exposed to. At that age, their interests are pretty malleable, so being able to see what the responsibilities are for someone in HR, versus accounting or engineering, is hugely valuable to the students.
AR: Have you seen a change in environmental awareness in students who’ve worked with AlexRenew?
CM: Definitely. Through helping AlexRenew staff plan events for Water Discovery Day and Earth Day, our students learn about and see firsthand the role AlexRenew plays in contributing to a cleaner and more sustainable city for us all. AlexRenew staff also do a great job of communicating to students how the work they’re doing in various departments – HR, engineering, finance, and more – contributes to the organization’s overall mission to protect the environment and the community.
AR: What are some memorable anecdotes from past internships?
CM: There are two that come to mind. One year, AlexRenew threw a graduation party for two interns, which was totally unexpected and special, and a testament to the care that the AlexRenew team has for our students. The other is when students presented to AlexRenew staff about their experience in Urban Alliance and working at AlexRenew. The conference room was packed—it wasn’t just their supervisors, but also colleagues from the testing lab, construction, and more. It was a really powerful visual.
AR: How can other organizations who may be interested in working with Urban Alliance benefit from this type of collaboration?
CM: There are several benefits for organizations working with Urban Alliance. The first is building homegrown talent; hosting a high school intern allows an organization to observe a young person’s potential, develop their skills, and build company loyalty, all while the young person assists with real work! Partners can also access our network of talented, diverse alumni for open positions; our alumni have all successfully graduated from high school and completed a long-term professional internship.
Secondly, each successive generation brings a new perspective to the workplace. Our high school interns participate in a robust professional skills training curriculum that fosters critical thinking and soft skills. Urban Alliance interns are curious about how businesses work. Businesses have a lot to teach them, and in turn, their unique perspective can help companies evolve.
Lastly, there’s the impact to the community. Beyond economic and productivity benefits to organizations, investing in Urban Alliance interns offers significant return on investment for the community. A participating business extends social good beyond its own interest, resulting in a positive impact on the community, customers, employees, and the environment. This impact is realized by improved academic success, substantially higher college enrollment, and dramatically increased prospects for young people’s long-term employment.
AR: What else can members of the Alexandria community do to support the work of Urban Alliance?
CM: Investing in a student is one of the best ways to support Urban Alliance. To serve all interested students, we need more employers who are excited about making a win-win investment: providing a critical, paid opportunity to a young person in Alexandria while benefitting from extra help, fresh perspectives, the chance to grow talent, mentoring opportunities for staff, and more. If an employer can’t host a student, there’s also an option to sponsor a student in an internship with a local nonprofit.
Other ways that community members can support Urban Alliance include:
Event & meeting space – We’re always looking for great spaces to hold student and supervisor trainings, our annual Networking with Future Leaders event, and our annual end-of-program Public Speaking Challenge.
Scholarships – Sponsor a scholarship to assist an Urban Alliance participant with post-high school education and training costs.
Volunteering – Work 1-on-1 with our students to create high-quality resumes, cover letters, LinkedIn profiles, and college/scholarship essays, as well as to practice interview skills. We hold workshop sessions with our students on Fridays from 3-4:30pm.
Tell us about your full-time job openings – If you have open full-time positions, we’d love to share these job opportunities with our talented alumni.
Many thanks to Christine for taking the time to speak with us. For more information on Urban Alliance, you can visit theurbanalliance.org.