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John "Casey" Bigelow presented a fraud case to Social Security Administration officials from throughout San Diego during an internship this year. John "Casey" Bigelow presented a fraud case to Social Security Administration officials from throughout San Diego during an internship this year.

Internships Create “Aha” Moments for SDSU Students

The College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts is a leader in providing donor-supported internships.
By Jeff Ristine

“I believe one of the pillars of PSFA is internships.”

In his criminal justice classes, John “Casey” Bigelow (’18) learned standard operating procedures for law-enforcement contact with suspects or witnesses, and delved into the hot-button issues of racial profiling and use of force.

Then—working in an internship in the U.S. Marshals Service supported by a donor-sponsored scholarship—the San Diego State University undergraduate got a firsthand look into the world of federal law enforcement. For five months last year, Bigelow worked side-by-side with sworn deputies in the Downtown San Diego facility, shadowing them on investigations and as they transported prisoners between cellblocks and courtrooms.

“I gained amazing insight,” said Bigelow, who worked an additional internship this year assisting special agents at the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General. The combination of textbook instruction and “real world education,” he said, “provided a comprehensive learning experience for me.”

Both jobs came about through a program in the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts that uses scholarships to assist students who obtain internships. The donor-created scholarships can provide essential stipends for students, covering expenses for transportation, professional clothing and the like.

“I believe one of the pillars of PSFA is internships,” said Joyce Gattas, who has served as the college’s dean for more than 25 years and has made funding for internship scholarships a major goal in recent years. 

Most students within PSFA—in particular those majoring in journalism, public affairs, the creative arts and hospitality and tourism management—benefit from internships that provide practical experience before graduation. 

“Students can get incredible opportunities through internships where the agency couldn’t provide a stipend,” Gattas said.

Chloe Hird interned with the City of Vista this year, assisting with review and distribution of Community Development Block Grants. The experience helped her obtain a job with the County of San Diego immediately after graduating. “Almost every day I had an ‘aha’ moment where my studies and internship all came together…like a jigsaw puzzle,” Hird said. “I learned to work in a professional setting.”

Bigelow and Hird’s internships were supported by the Jack McGrory Internship Scholarship, funded by a former San Diego city manager. 

“The opportunity for the students is great,” said McGrory (’76), who has met with dozens of students supported by his gift. The fund also has placed interns into offices at the County of San Diego and the city manager offices in Del Mar and National City, among other locales. 

McGrory noted many scholarship beneficiaries are first-generation college students, and that internship experiences frequently turn into full-time jobs with the same agency. 

The Ben and Nikki Clay Internship Scholarship, for School of Public Affairs students, has supported internships at the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the San Diego Symphony, the Downtown San Diego Partnerships and other non-profits. Ben Clay (’68), who once worked as an intern for the City of La Mesa, said he wanted students to see the relationships among government, the arts and non-profits “and why it is important.”

Former public relations executive Nikki Clay (’67, ’72)—whose own college internship steered her away from one early career option—said she saw how interns provide a low-risk way to look for possible future employees. 

Other donors whose gifts support PSFA internships include:
  • Debra A. Greenfield (’71), former general counsel for the San Diego Association of Governments, who said she wanted “to give current students the opportunity to have the kind of rewarding career that I enjoyed.”
  • The late Danah Fayman, a longtime San Diego philanthropist who funded internships in the arts.
  • Tom P. Gable, whose newly created scholarship will support students in the field of public relations.
  • Gregory Smith, a former San Diego County assessor, whose scholarship targets graduate students.
Gattas said that when she turned to alumni for support for the scholarships, she found two perspectives. One group “had an internship and said it was the most transformational part of their academic experience,” she said. “Another group did not have an internship and said they wished they could have had one.”

Gattas, who is retiring this year, has sponsored her own PSFA scholarship for internships and international experiences, two types of experiences she said “really get to the core of these professional disciplines.”

McGrory’s contribution helps support the salary of a full-time internship coordinator in the School of Public Affairs, Patricia Frosio, who facilitates the placements. About 25 students were awarded internship scholarships in 2017-18, said Frosio.