The Presidential Internship Program

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Since 1992, a select group of students has had the opportunity to serve in the president’s office at the University of Utah. The Presidential Internship Program lets students work with, observe and learn from senior administrators, providing them with a behind-the-scenes understanding of higher education. In this episode, Merry Joseph and Sinndy Rios, co-leads of this year’s cohort, describe their experiences as presidential interns. Recorded on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us achieve great things at the University of Utah. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U, and I really look forward to the days when I have conversations with students on the U Rising Podcast. It's one of my favorite things. And today is one of those great opportunities. My guests are Merry Joseph and Sinndy Rios. These two remarkable students are leading our 2020-2021 cohort of presidential interns. Welcome Merry, Sinndy, glad you're here!

Merry Joseph: Thank you, President Watkins.

Sinndy Rios: Thank you, President Watkins.

President Watkins: I'm so delighted to be working with you this year. You have a special role this year and we got to work together last year as well. I think our listeners would love to hear a little bit of background about the Presidential Intern Program, about what it is and then how our students are selected. So, I think, Merry, you're going to go first and give a little background.

Merry Joseph: Absolutely. The Presidential Intern Program was started back in 1992 by former University of Utah President Arthur Smith. And it was created as this opportunity for a select cohort of undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds, majors, life experiences, to come together to learn about the inner workings of higher educational institutions, their structure, get to know university leaders on a personal level, and also serve as student representatives at official university events. Over the years, this program has morphed, and now under your leadership, President Watkins, this program has evolved into an internship structure. It's now the presidential internship and students now have the opportunity to not only learn about higher ed and higher ed leadership, but they also get to work right alongside university administrators and leaders on campus on projects and policies that will impact and help our campus community.

President Watkins: Great. And maybe, Sinndy, you're going to talk a little bit about how one becomes a presidential intern.

Sinndy Rios: Yeah. There is an application that goes live during the spring semester. When you fill out that form, you also have to submit two letters of recommendation, and then you go through an interview process. Requirements to be an intern—you at least have to be a sophomore by the end of the academic year, and then being a full-time student as well and maintaining a GPA of 3.25 or higher. And then for the following year, you have to commit to the full academic year and be able to work 10 to 12 hours weekly. And then in particular, we need interns to be available on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., which is when we have our weekly seminars. Each year we get a few applicants and then we can pick only eight interns. So, it's a competitive pool, but we look for students who are interested in higher education and just developing their leadership within that space. And then two interns are welcomed back to lead the cohort, and then they are able to continue that on.

President Watkins: So, it's a pretty amazing journey to be a presidential intern when you imagine about 26,000 undergraduates on our campus and eight new interns and two leads are chosen every year. Wow. These are amazing, talented students. I think you're going to introduce us to these great talents. So Sinndy, maybe you're going to go first.

Sinndy Rios: I'll start off by introducing myself. My name is Sinndy Rios and I'm a political science and sociology major. I'm currently in my senior year and I'm applying for law school and I hope to go into immigration or civil rights law. We then have Emily Black, who is a senior studying finance. We also have Alejandro Sanchez, who's a junior studying political science and international relations. We then have Debora Brito De Andrade, who is a senior studying health, society and policy. And we have Ean Bigelow, who is a Spanish major studying pre-med and he is a junior.

Merry Joseph: And then we also have Veronica Aponte, who is a junior majoring in business and international studies at the U. And then we have Preston Hadley. He's studying quantitative analysis of markets and organizations, and it's called QAMO. And we have Alvin Tsang this year as well, who is a senior who is also studying QAMO with minors in computer science and advanced financial analysis. And then this year we also have Sabah Sial, who is a junior pursuing an Honors finance degree through the business school. Lastly, I'm Merry, and I'm a senior studying biomedical engineering and psychology, and I'm hoping to pursue a physician scientist track after graduation.

President Watkins: It is truly a remarkable cohort of people, just really showcasing the very best of the university. And our presidential interns get a real opportunity to see some of the inner workings of the university. One part of that is often events. Now this year events are different. How are the presidential interns doing that part of their work in this very unusual pandemic year?

Merry Joseph: It has been bittersweet that campus events are postponed or canceled due to the pandemic. Part of our experience this year has been re-imagining new ways of connecting our interns in a safe and responsible manner, but also keeping this program very meaningful and engaging for our students, right? So, the first structural change that we've made to accommodate this new era that we're in is adapting this internship structure with the extra time that we've had. So, each of our 10 interns are matched based on their interest and their backgrounds to work on projects in an administrative office of the University of Utah. This year, we're really grateful to have this partnership with six offices. They're the Vice President for Student Affairs office, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Vice President for Research, Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Chief Safety Officer's office, as well as University Marketing and Communication.

Interns this year really get to have this longitudinal internship experience for a whole semester and not only share their student perspectives, but actually then take their perspectives and translate that into developing policies and projects that will benefit our campus community. So, it's quite neat. And then we also now have adopted a virtual weekly meeting seminar structure just to make sure that everyone is safe and socially distant. So those are the changes that we've adopted this year.

President Watkins: I have to say, these might be changes we end up keeping.

Merry Joseph: I agree.

President Watkins: I think the opportunity to really be part of what an office like the Chief Safety Officer is trying to move forward or our Student Affairs VP or Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, is a very powerful year of learning. So, I know, Sinndy, I think one of the ways that you also learn is through this opportunity to discuss things among the team about what's on the minds of our students, as well as meet people from around the campus. Tell us about that aspect of the program this year.

Sinndy Rios: As I mentioned earlier, each week we have a seminar on Wednesdays, and these weekly seminars have two components to them. The first hour, we usually will dedicate it to debriefing and just sharing our experience as students, what's going on with our lives. And then this year we've integrated that update on projects that everyone's working with in their designated office, so sharing those and then any events that they're helping out with so we can all just stay in the loop.

The second part of those weekly seminars are meeting amazing leaders, both on and off campus. During the fall semester, we focus on campus leaders, but a majority of them are administrators. We are able to learn more about their roles and just how they advocate for students in each of those departments.

And then during the spring semester, we get to connect with community leaders who are also working on helping students in different ways. And we just are able to see different leadership styles and hear their journeys of how they became a leader and skills that will be useful for our futures.

President Watkins: I know both of you, Sinndy and Merry, were presidential interns last year, and this year you were chosen from that super talented cohort to be the leads. It says a lot about both of you. What were the big takeaways from the program for you last year? Merry, maybe you're going to go first, but tell us about what really mattered from what you learned last year.

Merry Joseph: We had so many valuable lessons, but I think for me, my two biggest takeaways from my experience last year were I truly learned the importance of civic engagement and being involved in my community. I think before this presidential internship experience, I just thought my role as a student was to just go to class and then go home and do my homework. And this program truly changed the way that I see involvement and I now have more courage and confidence to use my voice to help my community and peers. And I hope to carry that on in my future career journey as well, being involved in helping uplift my community in the future.

And then the second big takeaway was just the sense of family that I got from this cohort. I think I found nine new friends that I probably would have never met had it not been for this program. And I've gotten such ardent mentors and advocates for me in my life that I know will always be there supporting me encouraging and motivating me throughout my educational and career journeys in the future.

President Watkins: Those are pretty great takeaways I'd have to say. And you do, I think, have a network for life. What do you think, Sinndy, anything you want to add there?

Sinndy Rios: Like Merry said, there's so many experiences from this that I will take for the rest of my life. But for me, the one thing that I was really able to experience was just opening different career opportunities. I had never thought about how law works within higher education. And so, although I really do want to do immigration and civil rights law, I also have that new possibility of doing law within a higher education setting. So that's really cool. And that's something that I can also focus on later on after law school.

And then the other thing that has been just a great thing for me to observe has been different leadership styles, just the diversity within leaders on and off campus. I think sometimes we think of a leader in a particular way, but when we are able to hear of their experiences and their obstacles that they all had to overcome and how that has shaped them to be phenomenal leaders and inspiring leaders has really given me a different outlook on how to adapt those in my personal life.

President Watkins: Very powerful and really reflective on both of your parts. So, I'm guessing this podcast is going to inspire a lot of students who want to be presidential interns. How do they go about finding information about this program and apply, and what's the time they ought to be paying attention to in terms of being a presidential intern?

Sinndy Rios: Yeah. So, the easiest way to find information is to go to the president's website. So president.utah.edu. There you will find a tab that's titled “Presidential Interns,” and you can find all of the interns' bios. If you're interested in learning a little bit more about us, you can also do that. And then typically around the beginning of spring semester, so February, we will post the application and it'll go live and then you can start working on that and you'll have about a month or so to get everything submitted. But if there's any other questions, our email is also there. So, you can just send us an email and Merry and I will respond to those.

President Watkins: Excellent. Well, Merry, Sinndy, thank you so much for everything you do as presidential interns, for being my guests today and maybe most of all for being such stellar representatives of the University of Utah. We're so proud of you as leaders and the team of presidential interns that you work with. Phenomenal people!

Listeners, I want to tell you, I know this is a time of and uncertainty for everyone. You can feel good about our future by getting to know a presidential intern. These are remarkably talented people who will change the world for the future, for the better. So, thank you so much for being with us today. And I hope you'll join me again for the next edition of the U Rising Podcast.