The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is celebrating its 30th anniversary of the Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program this year.
The paid summer internship places undergraduate and graduate college students pursuing environmental, science, engineering, public administration, public health, computer technology, accounting, business, law, and communications degrees at TCEQ or other participating state agencies, county and city governments, and participating private sector companies from across the state.
John Hall, the founding chairman of TCEQ’s predecessor agency, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, began the program in 1991 as a memorial for his friend and former U.S. Congressman Mickey Leland, who died in an airplane crash in 1989 en route to Ethiopia on a mission as Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Hunger.
Jennifer Kirby is a 2016 graduate of the MLEIP. We interviewed her about her experience, why she recommends the program and how it has affected her career. Jennifer was hired at TCEQ following her internship and is now a GIS work lead for the agency.
Q. What made you decide to apply to TCEQ after being in the MLEIP?
A. I was able to use the knowledge from my internship when I applied for the entry level position on my team, along with my excellent customer service and technical support skills. That really gave me a leg up during the interview process. I really applied just because the timing was right. I was ending my internship and my mentor said, “We have an opening on our team. You should apply.” This was in August and I only had a couple weeks left in my internship, so I said, “Great. I’ll apply.” I had a bit of a gap between my internship and when I started, but I had just graduated, and I needed a job. I knew the people hiring for the job, I knew I liked them, was familiar with the office culture, and I knew I could do the job.
Q. What made you decide to stay at TCEQ?
A. I’ve stuck around because I keep learning new things and continue to have the opportunity to improve. I’m the GIS work lead, so I make a lot of the technical decisions for geospatial technology at the agency and so, as long as I’m still able to learn and grown and improve myself and the program, I’m very content here.
Q. Why would you recommend the internship program?
A. The No. 1 reason is that it’s a paid internship. When I was a student, those were very hard to come by and even the paid ones were only during school hours. This one is during the summer, so you can work full time and some of your mentors will be flexible with you. You can’t get better than a flexible, fulltime paid internship. Another reason would be your interns aren’t there just to do the busy work. You’re going to get more than just a paycheck out of it. Your mentor is going to work with you all summer to get you to meet people all across the agency in different program areas to find out what interests you. If you could see yourself working at TCEQ, maybe your internship is in waste permits, but your passion is air quality, so they work with someone in air quality to meet with you and explain the process and what their day job is. I do this a lot in my role now. We have a lot of interns interested in GIS and I do at least one or more meetings with interns from different programs [per summer] because they’re interested in GIS and want to know more about our program and how it works. Every TCEQ staff is very willing to help. I’ve never run into someone who is too busy or not interested in helping.
Q. Why do you think the program is useful to participating organizations/companies?
A. The interns are already vetted through the internship application process, so organizations don’t have to spend the resources to do that. Plus, the summer internships function as an interview, which is beneficial for both the intern and the hiring manager, because you can actually test out that intern to see what their work is like, whether they fit into office culture, whether they know what they’re doing and how they’ll make the transition to a fulltime employee. It lowers the risk for the company because they don’t have to invest in all the hiring process and the training for a non-vetted fulltime employee. They’ve already vetted that intern during the internship. Plus, these interns are so smart. I hear every year from mentors who say they learned something from their intern, so it’s kind of a two-way street.
Q. Tell me about the LinkedIn group you created for alums.
A. In summer 2020, it was totally different than any other recruiting group we’ve ever had. All our summer events were virtual. I was participating in an alumni panel for an event toward the end of the summer that gave interns an opportunity to submit their questions beforehand and then alumni would answer them. We were talking about pensions and 401Ks and other stuff that is quite confusing coming right out of college. You have to make all these life-changing decisions, such as how much money to put away for retirement. I realized there were a lot of great support systems for these interns while they’re in the program, which is great, but nothing for former interns. There are now about 30 years’ worth of interns, many of whom work at TCEQ, and they have all this amazing wisdom to share. I thought it would be great to speak to someone who was in the program about 10 years ago to ask what I should do for long-term savings based on their experience. I also wanted to give other alumni opportunities to volunteer with the program. It’s slow going, but I’m hoping it will take flight over the next year.
Interested alumni can request to join the LinkedIn group at https://www.linkedin.com/groups/12450626/
Q. How do you think you’ve benefitted from the program?
A. In every way. Honestly, I wouldn’t be where I am today without the program. If I didn’t have the internship, I wouldn’t have been hired as an entry level analyst and then I wouldn’t have been promoted to my current role now. What sparked my professional career was the Mickey Leland Environmental Internship Program. I’ve also had the opportunity to speak at conferences as a representative of the MLEIP and met some commissioners of other state agencies to talk to them about their hiring processes and made sure they knew about MLEIP.