6 Lessons From Our Summer Interns
Posted by Audrey Lin on Aug 30, 2020
Couple weeks back, fifteen of us completed a memorable summer internship. Across seven seemingly unstoppable weeks, 7 interns and 8 mentors came together to deepen in service. What transpired moved all of us, and we continue to be disarmed by the ripples that flow on.
When summer internship applications came in this Spring, Vishesh noted: "It's hard to say who's going to be the intern and who’s going to be the mentor this summer."
Indeed, the service-hearted intentions and experiences these young hearts articulated was so telling. As we dove into the summer, they showed up in full form every week. Rolling up their sleeves in concrete action, they served on existing ServiceSpace projects, as well as initiated their own service projects -- some of which are slated to continue throughout the year! Expanding their thinking, they'd read a new book every week related to values of service and kindness, and took turns leading a group discussion on their chosen book. Finally, with their "hearts," they shared space with each other, and the broader community, gleaning wisdom from guests speakers and their journeys in inner transformation -- across education and peace-building, media and acting, animal welfare, monasticism, and beyond!
Each day brought new insights, possibilities, synergy and emergence. It's hard to capture all that flowed through, but here are six of many lessons learned along the way.
Lesson #1: Surrender to the Seeds.
We actually didn't plan to do a summer internship this year. But by the time its seeds blew into our social field, we realized they had already been planted.
In February, Nipun gave a talk at a local high school. Soon after, a few of its students wrote asking to intern with ServiceSpace this summer. It's standard for some teens to fill up their summer with programs and internships to build their college resumes, but the genuine way these young minds keenly asked how they could become better people was something we couldn't turn away. The first email we received described: "it struck me that I could be doing so much more than I already do. ... It was amazing meeting you and I am really excited to work with you and reflect on myself and how I can improve the world."
Later in the Spring, Anha (whose dad volunteered with some of the first ServiceSpace projects!) wrote:
Growing up, my parents would host meditation retreats at our house, inviting whomever was interested to participate in a day filled with true human connection and mindfulness. My mom would take my sister and I to my grandmother's house on that day and we could spend time watching TV, eating sugary snacks we didn't have at home, and talking to my grandparents. On one of these days my mom brought me back home a little earlier to help set up lunch for everyone and while walking in my house I was met with over 30 people sitting in the living room and family room, an inexplicably strong energy radiating off of each silent individual. This was my first introduction to meditation, and the first notion that ever came across my youngling mind that people purposefully meditated for prolonged periods of time, together, and sought comfort and purpose from this activity.
That very day I learned about ServiceSpace, my father explained to me the nature of the organization and it's purpose to inspire all those in the world who wish to spread kindness, understanding, positive change, and foster meaning in each human being. Although short, my 16 years on this Earth have provided me with enough insight for me to decide that as a human I want to spread kindness as far and wide as possible. ... Interning for ServiceSpace would really allow me to expand upon this and open up my mind to new ways of expressing my love for the people around me and the world.
Each intern -- Anha, Frances, Leela, Lena, Mika, Sonya, Tanvi -- expressed such heart-expanding caliber of intentions. And each of our mentors immediately signed on to volunteer with a full-hearted "YES!" The conditions were ripe, it seemed, and all we had to do was surrender to the emergence.
Lesson #2: Create a Container, But Don't Fill It. Just Hold Space.
As the summer unfolded, each intern's way of being and personality surfaced in its unique light. While typical internships may view interns as an extra pair of hands to complete low-level work for a desired impact, we had no agenda -- no end-goal mission to employ the interns towards. Instead, our means were the ends, and the guiding question we held was the same as any other project: How can we hold space for inner transformation in this context?
While the structure of our internship was the same for everyone, and the context was co-created, the content was generated by each intern's specific intentions and way of being. Each had her own unique inquiries and interests, talents and conditions. While each intern began serving with specific ServiceSpace projects -- from editing KarunaVirus stories to making themed lists of inspiring stories and Awakin readings and beyond -- our seven weeks were also their blank canvas, and we invited the interns to use it and us fully. How could we support them to serve? They were brimming with a medley of ideas, and hit the ground running.
Some ideas surfaced from observations in their local communities. Anha wanted to brighten the days of people in her town. She began painting stones with uplifting messages, and hid them in public spaces for people to find. While making story lists for KarunaVirus, Tanvi noticed her seeing-impaired grandparents weren't able to read the articles. She began making audio recordings of popular stories so they, too, could benefit from stories of love over fear. Seeing a the demand for face masks rise throughout the course of the pandemic, Lena decided to sew and donate face masks for community groups. Along the way, she ended up interviewing and collaborating with a local teen doing the same!
Other projects built off of personal interests. Sonya's curiosity of psychology prompted her and Leela to create a mental health podcast for teens: YouthSpeaks. With three episodes under their belt, they outlined a calendar of episodes planned for the whole year ahead! In parallel, Leela invited fellow teens to do an act of kindness, and she interviewed them about their experience, as well as their thoughts on lockdown life. Mika and Frances, who are passionate for the environment and animals, initiated a 9-day vegan challenge, inspiring all of us to think more deeply about how far we extend our kindness towards animals, the environment, and the idea of a compassionate diet. Mika also initiated a gratitude letter project, as Frances' poetic and artistic ways dazzled us with stunning weekly poem art that reflected all the interns' acts of kindness that week!
Lesson #3: Listen. Really.
On our very first call, we had a circle of sharing on: "What's a moment of kindness you've experienced or witnessed that has disarmed you?" The circle was so rich with powerful personal stories from people. Mika described going to a dinner with her dad's boss, and when they drove by a car accident, her dad immediately stopped to help, even though it was an important dinner and now they would be very late for it. Frances recalled a circle of friendship with a friend from preschool. Story after story poured out, and the depth of everyone's listening, coupled with the spirit of sharing from the heart (rather than performing from the mind), created a space in which we were all transfixed by the collective holding of each other's journeys.
In one of our last calls, Anha observed a subtle shift in herself: throughout the summer, she had become more keen to listen to others first. Previously, she noted that she tended to immediately offer up her answer to display her knowledge when a teacher posed a question. Now, rather than focus her attention on her own articulations, she asked herself: How can what I say serve the group? Lena, similarly, shared in her closing SpiriTed Talk: "After the first few Awakin Circles and calls, I noticed I stopped doing this 'essay prep' in my head. I've been speaking English my entire life, there's no reason for me to be prepping for hours what I was going to say in under a minute." Genuine listening draws out a mutual respect, that was so apparent among our interns: "You may disagree with their opinion, but you're not disagreeing with them as a person," Lena added. "In our discussions, we fell back on a lot of moral issues. We may have had differing opinions every now and then, but the environment we harnessed, we knew that we all respected one another, and we all wanted to listen to what each other had to say."
The quality of listening on all our calls was palpable, particularly as the interns started hosting conversations with guest speakers. Before the internship began, Lena proposed a project to host Teen Awakin Calls. She, along with Leela and Anha, initiated the first one featuring Melissa. They poured in hours preparing for it -- drafting super thoughtful questions, arranging the call flow, having a pre-call with Melissa, coordinating RSVPs. It's no wonder that they orchestrated a flawless conversation -- with thoughtful questions, deepening dialogue, and space for audience Q&A. They literally took the idea and ran with it, and we mentors were just trying to keep up! In following weeks, other interns interviewed guests, like peacebuilder Janessa and animal advocate Lisa. By the end of the summer, interviewing became second nature -- as they gleaned stories from volunteer journeys like Mia and Guri, inspiring media experts like Sallyann, and even other service-hearted youth!
Lesson #4: Values are Caught Not Taught.
This is not a new idea, but the unpredictable process of living into our values continually catches us by surprise. :) Throughout the internship, values were contagious, right from Week 1.
Every week, we would read a book related to values of kindness and service. On Fridays, the intern who chose that week's book would lead a group discussion on it. In our first week, Anha led a discussion on Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Mark was struck by Seligman's "gratitude visitation" activity, where you write and share a gratitude letter to someone who has deeply impacted you, but doesn't know it. During the discussion, Mark committed to do this activity with a former professor he hadn't spoken to in years, and he would report back on how it went. At the end of the call, Tanvi spontaneously remarked, "I really like how Mark is applying something from the book to make a change for the better in his life. I'd like to challenge myself to do one thing each week that embodies a value from the book we read. Does anyone want to join me?" That weekend, everyone wrote a gratitude letter to someone in their lives. :)
Even virtually, people's depth of presence spoke volumes. After interviewing two Buddhist monks, Jin Chuan and Jin Wei, Leela described, "Just watching the monk's demeanor actually made me really jealous. They seemed so calm, and spoke with a lot of conviction about their lives and their choices. I want to be that comfortable being so absolute about the way my life has turned out! ... And they seemed so peaceful, and so at peace, like they had figured out how to live their lives properly, without ego." After a Q&A session with Guri, Lena reflected: "Something really special that she shared was 'When given the choice to be right or to be kind, be kind.' This really surprised me because I had never thought of kindness as an option. We are always told to do the right thing, but even the right thing can cause harm. So, in doing the kind thing, we will always be doing the right thing."
In Week 2, after conversations with Melissa and Mia, as well as an article she edited for KarunaVirus about a "Common Sense Camp," Mika wrote: "It has reaffirmed the importance of not just learning how to be book smart, but the importance of being a good person. These past two weeks, I have learned more about how to be kind and empathic than I have ever learned in school."
On the interns 'graduation' call, they each gave an 8-minute "SpiriTed Talk," with guests in the audience. One guest wrote afterwards, "Listening to the interns' talks brought me back to my own experiences as a teenager. The struggles of trying to make sense of identity, friendships, self-image, autonomy, responsibility, and belonging. Complex time. They were very honest with their experience and with each other, which shows how much trust they had developed in being part of ServiceSpace. I was particularly struck by their ability to see the goodness in others. I think this is a "hidden" skill that ServiceSpace teaches -- amplifying the goodness in each person, often things that we don't even see."
Lesson #5: It's Not What We Do, But Who We Become By What We Do.
Beyond concrete projects and daily group discussions, core to the internship were personal practices of stillness and kindness.
We began every call with a minute of silence, to help us transition from wherever we came from and be more present in our time together. In Week 2, Mika reflected: "Last week, I did not really take time to ground myself because I thought that one minute was not enough time to get my head cleared, so what’s the point? This week, I really tried focusing my mind during that one minute of quietness and it really allowed me to stay more focused during the meetings."
The interns also meditated everyday, and an hour on Wednesdays as part of an Awakin Circle. Growing up in today's device and info-overloaded world, the interns all noted how many distractions they faced when they tried to meditate. Sonya described, "This Wednesday, I meditated with distractions away from me. I sat in a different room, and placed my phone and laptop away from me, focusing on myself. Although it was still hard, and I still opened my eyes every couple minutes, it got much easier to navigate my thoughts, and push distractions away." Reflecting on the challenges of getting swept away by spiraling thoughts, Leela allowed, "You can't really fail at meditation -- the point is that you work through your distractions and mistakes to eventually achieve a sense of calm." In our final week, Frances wrote, "I want to continue to meditate everyday after the internship has ended because I now know how much it helps to orient and focus my mind and my body."
We also collectively embarked on a 30-day Kindness Challenge, doing a unique act of kindness every day. The many shades of goodwill led to some beautiful insights. Lena observed how easy it can be to make someone's day:
A highlight from this week was gifting a card and gift-card to employees at the CVS Pharmacy by my house. I wanted to express gratitude because while we get to stay home, employees like the one I met still have to work. I was a concerned that there were going to be too many workers and I wouldn't have enough cards so that there would be some that got left out. Luckily, this did not happen and there was only 1 cashier working and 1 other employee who was busy. I gave both cards to the one cashier and he said he'd make sure to give the other one to his coworker. I learned that something like this is so easy to do, but it can still bring a smile to someone's day.
Tanvi's mentor challenged her to spend a week doing non-material acts of kindness. After spending quality time with her sister, planting flowers in her neighborhood, and helping her mom around the house (and feeling joy at seeing her mom be able to relax), she observed: "I normally think of acts of kindness as something you can make or buy for someone but doing the nonmaterial acts has been eyeopening and I now see how many acts of kindness there are that I could do for someone."
Another intern wrote a touching reflection on an edge that surfaced for her:
I am really scared that I'm an evil person, and this week made me a little more scared. While I stuck with the acts of kindness, and did them every day, I am really worried that my actions were coming from a place of accountability, not a place of goodheartedness. ... I think that I also struggle with the idea of participating in things for the sake of my future rather then for my own personal gain and development. I could blame this on society's hyper attention on college and success, but it's also a me thing. I get myself into things that I think will "look good" and then have a hard time being genuine about it.
By the end of the internship, there seemed to be a conspiracy of kindness flowing through all the interns and mentors. For Tanvi's birthday, everyone spontaneously showered her with messages of appreciation for the person she is, and Mark even sang an epic birthday song in Hindi! When Frances invited us to read a book of poetry, a bunch of folks sent video messages reading their favorite poem. One day, Sonya casually shared about her love of black forest cake. Sure enough, couple weeks later that very flavor of cake ended up on her doorstep two days in a row! In our penultimate week, Lena and Leela crafted a "Kahoots" quiz show game with fun facts (and baby photos!) of every intern and mentor. And even on our final call, the interns surprised us with a gratitude video, in addition to preparing their own talks! Of course, the mentors, too, had a surprise planned -- and Tim whipped out his ukulele, serenading all of us with a joyous song highlighting each intern and mentor!
That brings us to Lesson #6: Just Love.
With the pandemic, the interns never got to meet in person, but that didn't stop the flow of love.
Like true Generation Z-ers, :) during our orientation call, the interns took it upon themselves to create a group chat. We had group calls every day, and they had 1-on-1 calls with their mentor, as well as ad-hoc calls for different group projects. Every week, interns also did a 1-on-1 buddy call with four other interns, interviewing each other with deeper-dive seed questions. Listening and sharing personal answers to questions like: "What is an act of kindness or compassion that you've received that impacted you, and the way that you perceive the world?" or "Was there a time that was difficult for you to be kind? What prevented you from being kind; what did you learn from that experience?" prompted a different quality of conversation than a regular catch-up phone call with a friend. Already, within the first week, it was as if everyone had known each other for a long time.
As they began working together on projects, relationships deepened, and vulnerable conversations created opportunities to make each others' day in heartfelt ways. When Tanvi shared that she'd given up on correcting the incorrect way people pronounced her name, #thunavee became a recurring meme in our threads and zoom call chat windows, and Mark made an epic tribute to master the pronunciation. :) When Mika shared her passion for animal rights and veganism, everyone rallied behind her and Frances' intention and dove into a 9-day vegan challenge with an open mind and heart. Even those amongst us who are not vegan or who eat meat noted, "It'll be a good challenge for myself!" When Frances poignantly described how she couldn't just sit and do nothing when the world and environment is struggling with so many issues, everyone declared: "Frances for President!" and "Frances 2028"! She had all our votes in a heartbeat. :)
It was also incredibly apparent that this kind of space was able to surface because of the labor-of-love organizing principles. Eight mentors poured so much of themselves on top of their work and family lives to ladder the interns however they could, with nothing in it for them but the simple feeling of gratitude at the opportunity. On top of group calls and weekly 1-on-1s with their assigned intern, the mentors were always tuning into ways to support and nurture the interns, and vice versa! When Sonya and Leela found themselves wading through the logistics of setting up their mental health podcast, Mark tagged them with an epic logo and sound mix! Without fail, he untiringly showed up on every single interns call -- no matter what other work and commitments he had going on -- just to hold space for the interns' service-hearted intentions. Similarly, in her spirited style, Liz (who took on the nickname "love phantom" throughout the summer :)) wrote encouraging responses to every single reflection that interns and mentors alike posted on the kindness challenge feed. Without fail, Sophie drafted up thoughtful interview questions every weekend, which the interns used to interview each other on their buddy calls throughout the week. Tim, hosted a gratitude challenge with his intern, Lena, as a bonus practice! Even for the mentors, Vishesh initiated mentor office hours, as a space to support our volunteer journeys along the way. On one call, he also mirroed back the group wisdom with doodle notes!
Such agendaless offerings quickly spilled forth, as the ripples of love took on a life of their own. When Amit challenged everyone to push themselves to do a "failure club" act that they aspired to do but for whatever reason hadn't yet, the interns then challenged Amit on a following week to show up in the spirit-of-service way that he aspired to everyday at home. And perhaps it was on that call when Amit's 6-month-old daughter made a guest appearance, as he carried out this intention. :) When Amritha vulnerably shared a challenging dilemma she once faced once as a teacher, where wasn't sure if she had made the right choice, all the interns weighed in with honest and encouraging opinions. Day after day, it was incredibly humbling and inspiring to see a sacred space take root in our internship -- one in which everyone listened, shared openly and honestly, and carried a mutual respect where they could disagree with ideas at times without disagreeing with the person, and with an appreciation for everyone's unique perspective and wisdom.
Although the formal internship concluded in mid-August, the ripples carry on. Sonya and Leela have mapped out a year's worth of themes for their bimonthly podcast episodes. :) Next weekend, Lena and Amritha are interviewing a teenager about a service effort she spearheaded with children in Central America, and they decided to open up the conversation for all the interns to join in. Inspired by the wisdom that flows through such conversations, Lena and Tanvi also plan to continue organizing Teen Awakin Calls as a monthly event. The ripples of our ways of being are a beautiful thing to witness as well. "Everyday now I find myself wondering what I can do to spread kindness to the people around me," wrote Frances in her final reflection.
Several interns also described the unique quality of friendships sealed in service:
Something that I learned was how a close friendship doesn't necessarily have to be a friendship you've had for a long time. With the other interns, many of us had only known each other for this past 7 weeks, but the value of our friendships transcend beyond time itself. They have taught me so much about being myself and being confident in myself. I think this teaches me about intention. We all came here with a similar intention that gave us an open mind to learning and accepting one another.
The power of a pure intention never ceases to amaze. From that alone, so much can be born. Although our seven weeks have come and gone -- with a spectacular dose of joyous laughter (and solemn tears), collective and introspective wisdom, and beautiful acts of love towards a greater good -- we look forward to all the seeds that continue to bloom, and are grateful for the conditions that allow us to convene in such sacred ways.
To close with a song, here's Tim's ukulele tribute to the internship crew (: