Interns line up for Children's Museum spots: Popular program doesn't pay, but students get fun, valuable experience

June 9, 2008

Since arriving at The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, Tiffany Wedekind has rubbed shoulders with comic book characters, connected schoolteachers to learning activities, and made plans to travel abroad to help gather ancient Egyptian artifacts.

She is not a seasoned veteran of the museum field, but a 22-year-old intern who will graduate from Marian College in December. What's more, Wedekind is not alone. She is among at least 22 college students who will share similar experiences there this summer.

Exposing interns to the same environment executives are accustomed to, in lieu of the mundane tasks often associated with summer jobs, is what makes the museum's internship program so attractive.

Within the arts and not-for-profit sectors, it's typically mentioned among the best in the country, said Susan Zurbuchen, director of arts administration at Butler University.

"People in general might be surprised to find how many internships aren't well-defined until the person gets there," she said. "You don't have that at all at the Children's Museum."

Students can work as little as 15 hours or up to 37-1/2 hours per week in any area of the museum, including education, marketing, development, graphic design and human resources. None of the students is paid, which is not uncommon in the not-for-profit community, Zurbuchen said. College credit often is available, however.

Internships also are offered during the spring and fall semesters, but the summer session is the most popular, said Karla McLaughlin, the museum's intern program manager. For it, she normally receives at least 150 applications.

"It's an extension of their classroom," McLaughlin said. "Our primary goal is to better their education and to give them a learning opportunity."

The program began in 1988. Students since have completed roughly 1,000 internships. The number includes students who have participated more than once. Wedekind, for instance, started part time in the spring, is there for the summer, and may be around in the fall as well, when she is set to graduate with a degree in arts administration.

The Carmel native has helped arrange an event for the "Comic Book Heroes Featuring the Max Simon Comic Book Collection" exhibit that opened May 3. In October, she hopes to travel to Egypt to prepare for "Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs" arrival at the museum. The traveling exhibition will begin its U.S. tour this fall and will be at the museum in 2009 from June to October. It is the only children's museum that will host the exhibit.

For Wedekind, the experiences are worth their weight in gold.

"I've had a lot of part-time jobs during school," she said, "but the thing that is most unique and valuable for an intern here is ... you're going through the same training as an executive would."

Indeed, the interns participate in a professional development series involving several sessions, some of which are led by museum President Jeffrey Patchen. They read "Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap ... and Others Don't," and discuss the book with him.

The sessions are held during weekdays when the students are at the museum. They then are assigned to various projects, one of which involves working with teachers to develop science and math curricula from museum galleries.

Recent graduates and grad students also are eligible to apply. The museum accepts students studying abroad, although they must be at least 21 years old.

While the program is unusual, the qualifications the museum seeks in its interns are not. The desire to learn and the willingness to take on responsibility are what McLaughlin values most.

That's fine with Phoebe Tamble and Zoe Wagoner, 20-year-old Butler students who are spending the summer away from their suburban Chicago homes. Tamble is seeking degrees in arts administration and dance, and Wagoner is a marketing major.

Wagoner has worked with children, including as a tutor at the International School of Indiana. The chance to use that experience at one of the largest children's museums in the nation prompted her to apply. Learning more about the business operations of an arts establishment is what attracted Tamble to the internship.

Together, one of their jobs is to videotape children-with parental permission, of course-to use as promotional material on the museum's Web site. Neither seemed concerned about not getting paid for their work.

"I dance, so I'm used to the arts and the not-for-profit world," Tamble said. "That's not the most important thing-it's the experience."

She is among Zurbuchen's students within the arts administration department at Butler who apply for internship programs across the country. The Children's Museum typically ranks well against the likes of The Kennedy Center and Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Zurbuchen said.

Students who complete the Children's Museum internship often tell her they felt like a staff member rather than a volunteer, she said, "and that's not true for all programs."
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