Summer Internship with Gates Foundation: The Impact of Impatient Optimism

This post was written in October 2012 by second year student, Carla Hickman. Carla spent her summer interning with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

I have always worked in the education sector, and arriving at Fuqua, it was a passion and career path I knew I would continue to follow. During the hectic recruiting season, I was looking for an organization that would allow me to apply my new knowledge and skills to the work of improving and enhancing educational opportunities. It was a tall order, certainly, but one that was met the day I learned I would spend my summer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) working with the Postsecondary Success team.

I had an unconventional start to the summer. After a day of mandatory HR training at headquarters, I met my manager and team at the Seattle-Tacoma airport minutes before boarding a red-eye flight. It was the first of 8 flights during my first two weeks (multiple states and multiple flights is an excellent way to get to know your new team quickly!) as we traveled to grantee meetings to review and strengthen proposals for the implementation phase of Completion by Design (CBD), a signature Postsecondary investment.

CBD is an example of the extraordinarily ambitious, impactful work supported by BMGF. The initiative is a five-year investment in groups of community colleges within a state that aim to substantially increase college completion rates while controlling costs and maintaining access and quality. This transformational work requires collaboration among dozens of Foundation employees—from program officers to financial planning & analysis to project managers—as well as a team of national technical assistance providers. It was not unusual for Foundation employees to outnumber grantee representatives at proposal meetings, a demonstration of the highly collaborative and complex nature of Foundation work. As soon as that first flight touched down, I had a seat at the table and a critical part to play on this impressive team.

My primary role was to assess the technology aspects of the grantee proposals:

  • What data is collected on campus related to instruction and learning, programs of study, and completion?
  • How does data inform the work of advisors, faculty, and administrators?
  • What additional data needs to be collected and analyzed?
  • Which technology systems and enterprise solutions have been implemented, and what new systems need to be deployed?

Answers to these questions not only influenced grantee practice but also informed strategy regarding an emerging category of services, tools, and business processes needed to improve student success and system performance in higher education. I learned that the role of a program officer is to bring great ideas like these to life and to scale—to bring people within the Foundation and across the country together to focus their intellect, energy, attention, and yes, dollars, on these potentially game-changing ideas. I am grateful to have worked with such a terrific group at BMGF this summer and to have learned not only from Foundation colleagues but also from the innovative community college leaders, faculty, and students who are supported by Foundation funding.

Fourteen other interns, including 4 of my Fuqua classmates, joined me at BMGF this summer. Our assignments spanned the three Foundation program areas—Global Health, Global Development, and the US Program—as well as a number of critical operating units including Communications, Finance, and Information Technology. Our small group of 15 sat down with senior leadership at a series of intern lunch (and breakfast) meetings, hearing directly from the co-chairs and executive committee members about the evolution of the Foundation’s strategy, the meaning of “impatient optimism,” the work of its many partners, and the impact the portfolio—and the belief that all lives have equal value—is having on the world.