The Value of Nonprofit Internships for Underrepresented Students

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Imagine that you know a potential career path isn’t for you but also are not yet sure what is — or that you want to honor your parents’ wishes but also want to do something meaningful. Finally, imagine that you want to do something to serve your community but feel that you can’t afford to explore such opportunities.

This is a tug-of-war many of us have felt regardless of our race, ethnicity, or background. But for many Asian and Pacific Islander students and young adults, the turmoil is even more acute and is often driven by the weight of familial expectations and the limitations of personal and family economics, as well as masked by the stereotypes and assumptions regarding what we could or should be.  

“Be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer.— or an accountant, dentist, or pharmacist.” This familiar refrain is something that as an Asian American most if not all of us have heard from our families. It’s something I call the “Asian Trifecta.” For most of us, it’s both a joke and a curse — a joke because we find it funny that we’ve heard some version of it before and a curse because we feel pressure to live up to the expectation and guilt when we can’t or won’t. 

Since 1997, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) has been offering an annual summer internship program, Leadership In Action (LIA), for Asian and Pacific Islander students who have different goals and are seeking meaningful careers. The program introduces and exposes them to opportunities in the nonprofit sector while helping them develop leadership skills along the way.  

If you’re wondering why a nonprofit internship for Asian and Pacific Islander students is important and what it has to do with diversity and inclusion, you’re not the first, the last, or the only person to have those questions. But from a diversity and inclusion perspective, there is an urgent need to build the pipeline of the next generation of diverse nonprofit leaders. 

I recently spoke with several LIA interns from this year’s cohort about topics ranging from why they sought out a nonprofit internship — particularly in the Asian and Pacific Islander community — to what surprised them about nonprofits, to how their parents and families reacted when they shared news of their acceptance into the program. The following are the major themes that emerged from our conversations:

● Broader understanding of nonprofit organizations and the diverse range and availability of roles in the sector – All of the interns expressed a desire to learn about nonprofits and gain firsthand experience as part of such an organization. They shared their increasing knowledge of the wide range of nonprofits and how they operate as well as acknowledged that each organization is different, with its own style and culture.

Additionally, each spoke about having greater awareness of the diversity of roles that they can connect with their interests and the knowledge they gained regarding the number of opportunities at nonprofits. One intern talked about feeling like she now has an alternate path from what her family wants for her and that she is capable of taking on anything she chooses. 

● Space to explore and grow one’s self-awareness, self-confidence, and identity – Whether it was connecting with a kindred community or learning about a completely different one, the interns all spoke of learning more about themselves and others, getting out of their comfort zones, and growing their self-confidence. Some expressed how validating it was to see so many different styles of leadership.

One intern acknowledged that imposter syndrome.— doubting one’s accomplishments and feeling like a fraud— is very real for her. However, she said that role-modeling with the LIA cohort and the affirmation and encouragement she received from the team at the placement organization helped her to see that she has done a lot. As an introvert, the intern spoke of being allowed to observe, learning through demonstration, and most important, not being judged.  

● The significance of paid internships to ensuring participation by low-income and marginalized communities as well as gaining parental support.– The removal of financial barriers to participation by offering a stipend ensures that each year a diverse cohort can participate in LIA. All of the interns spoke of how important it was to them and their families that they were being paid.
One intern spoke emotionally when sharing that he would not have been able to participate in the program if not for the stipend. Another said that while her parents were supportive of her participation, it was still essential to her that the internship be paid.

● Taking what they learned from mature Asian and Pacific Islander organizations back home – An intern from the East Coast talked of coming to California with its different culture and environment and gaining an up-close and personal experience with the diverse Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the southern half of the state. She said she was returning home with strategies, inspiration, and ideas regarding what is possible for her community.

What seemed to surprise the interns across the board was that nonprofit work is still just that — work.  Real work. One intern confessed to coming in with the perception that people don’t work as hard in nonprofit organizations. As another one put it, “Recognizing that a labor of love is still labor goes a long way.”  

While they described their families as being supportive, they also mentioned the familiar references to working at a high-paying job, ensuring a stable future, and securing a real job.— meaning with a for-profit company. 

If we are going to have a more truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive nonprofit sector, then we are going to need more than the current 2 percent of Asian Americans and 1 percent of Pacific Islanders who are CEOs — not to mention the 4 percent or less of African American and Hispanic nonprofit CEOs. Yes, systemic barriers exist and are deeply embedded in nonprofit policies, practices, and structures, but we can’t stop encouraging and nurturing as well as exposing young, idealistic, aspiring change-makers to the opportunities in the nonprofit sector, whether because of their culture or another reason. We must do this work in order to make the nonprofit sector more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.●

Linda Akutagawa is the president and CEO of Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP). She is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. LEAP is a partner of INSIGHT Into Diversity. For more information, visit This article ran in our November 2018 issue.