From Setback to Success: Yeshiva University Creates a Summer of Opportunity

The advent of COVID-19 shut down many things, one of which was the summer positions Yeshiva University students had set up to improve their knowledge and enhance their résumés.

However, Dr. Noam Wasserman, dean of the Sy Syms School of Business; Dr. Selma Botman, provost and vice president of academic affairs; and Susan Bauer, executive director of the YU Career Center were determined that the summer of 2020 would not be a lost summer for YU undergraduates.

For them, the central question was stark and urgent: What was the best way to support students who would lose substantive summer experience due to COVID-19 (and for honors students at Sy Syms, the possibility of graduating with honors because an internship is required)?

Their answer was a new initiative called the 2020 Summer of Opportunity. Dr. Wasserman, Dr. Botman and Bauer harnessed the creative energies of YU faculty, administrators and alumni to create immersive professionally focused experiences. The Summer of Opportunity team included Michael Strauss, associate dean of Sy Syms; Stephanie Strauss, executive director, and Gabi Sackett, program director, of YU Israel; Dr. Maria Blekher, professor of digital strategies and director of both the YU Innovation Lab and the MS in Digital Marketing and Media at the Katz School of Science and Health; Todd Lotcpeich, director of employer and alumni relations at the Career Center; faculty from the undergraduate and graduate schools; and alumni from around the world.

The initiative, which began in June and ended in August, matched undergrads to experiential learning, research and internship projects—all undertaken virtually—including learning from experts at consulting firms followed by stints doing client projects for leading nonprofits and Israeli startups.  The unique outreach of the program helped students find new and meaningful pathways to learn, practice and master skills in a world of work that was shifting platforms and functions on a daily basis, while also contributing to the improvement of the broader world.

“Our summer initiatives demonstrated the power of YU as a small university with a big reach,” said Dr. Wasserman. “As a small university, we had our finger on the pulse of students’ needs, and with that knowledge we could leverage our big connections within the business world and Jewish community.” Bauer added that “the Career Center wanted to create a positive narrative for YU students that for many years to come will reflect their diligence, perseverance and strong work ethic.”

YU Consulting Force/Innovation Lab Internship Initiative

The first program to be developed was the YU Consulting Force/Innovation Lab Internship Initiative, the brainchild of Dr. Wasserman.

The Consulting Force offered 35 students a nine-week, three-credit experiential learning program in partnership with experts from top-tier consulting firms such as Accenture, Deloitte Consulting, Boston Consulting Group and McKinsey, and select Jewish nonprofits and Israeli startups.  Alumni from Accenture and Deloitte were particularly pivotal in partnering with the University on the Consulting Force.

Students spent the first three weeks learning key skills and competencies from some of the country’s best consultants. This included classes on project management, design thinking, agile methodologies, teamwork, client management and professionalism, culminating in a fast-paced “wicked-problems hackathon” competition that stretched students’ thinking, endurance and teamwork skills.

During the final six weeks, students applied their newly acquired skills to client projects at Jewish nonprofits and Israeli startups, working on assignments with specific deliverables and a quantifiable impact. For these hands-on client projects, the University received twice as many project proposals from nonprofits as it could handle and had student interest in the projects determine which ones they would work on.  Faculty oversight was adeptly provided by Dr. Avi Giloni, associate dean and chair of Sy Syms’ information and decision sciences department; Dr. Tamar Avnet, chair of Sy Syms’ marketing department; and Thom Kennon, adjunct professor in the MS program in digital marketing and media at the Katz School.

YU Israel Virtual-Internships

Like the YU Consulting Force, the Israel Virtual-Internship Program was started in response to COVID-19’s impact on student internships, this time in Israel.

As Stephanie Strauss, executive director of YU Israel, explained, “We were about to greenlight an exciting new summer program that would have brought about 20 YU students here to work for a group of game-changing startups. But then COVID-19 happened, and it looked as if our program, several years in development, would be thrown out the window.” To meet the challenge, Strauss joined forces with Dr. Wasserman and Bauer to reimagine the program in a virtual format.

Strauss leveraged her many connections with Israeli-based YU alumni and re-engaged with the numerous startups that had participated in the RENSOP Fellows Winter High-Tech Trip from previous years. The results were impressive. More than 40 virtual internship opportunities were secured at such companies as OurCrowd, MassChallenge Israel, accessibleGO, Cyabra, TalkMarkets, iAngels and Optibus.

“Many of the participating companies were headed by YU alumni eager to mentor YU students,” remarked Strauss. The result of those connections could be long-term opportunities to either work at the company’s home base or join one of its global branches, especially for those students making aliyah [emigration to Israel]. “There is another silver lining to all  this,” said Strauss. “Students were given the chance to intern with a variety of cutting-edge startups which in a pre-COVID world may have been geographically impossible.”

Lotcpeich, director of employer and alumni relations at YU’s Career Center, who was instrumental in matching students to Israel internships, noted that participating employers have expressed an interest in extending the internships well into the fall, student schedules permitting.

Research Internships and Workshops

To make use of resources closer to home, Dr. Wasserman and Bauer’s teams solicited faculty from the undergraduate and graduate schools willing to take on research assistants, and they made close to five dozen matches between students and professors. Research projects ranged from exploring career paths of senior employees to investigating the connection between Facebook friends and impulse buying.

Helping the virtual interns stay on track, the Career Center offered a five-part Zoom workshop series on the specific strategies and techniques YU students needed to succeed in their respective summer projects. Each panel discussion featured YU alumni, faculty and staff as well as recruiters who were all ready to help them navigate the virtual work environment.

Evan Holzer ’21 SB, an intern in the YU Consulting Force initiative, summed up his experience well: “Internships are incredibly valuable. They give you firsthand knowledge that you’ll never gain in the classroom. And the fact that I was able to be part of this unique experience during such a tumultuous summer was great. Where else could I have spent my time being so forward-thinking and career-focused?”