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After internship cancellations, Phoenix Project aims to give new life to students’ summer plans

As public health concerns and worsening economic forecasts forced the cancellation of summer programs, many Duke students found themselves staring at an empty summer and a potential gap on their resumes.

Like their fellow students, seniors Mary Gooneratne and Luke Truitt watched as in-person classes and summer opportunities—such as internships, jobs and research—were canceled. Instead of seeing the cancellations as a loss, they saw an opportunity to help their peers.

“We were talking about how it would be great if there was some way that students who lost internships could do stuff [over the summer],” Truitt said. “And I said, well, maybe we can figure that out.”

After that conversation, the Duke University Phoenix Project was born. Modeled off of Duke Applied Machine Learning, a student group with which both Gooneratne and Truitt are involved, the project aims to put students to work on “on end-to-end technical solutions” for companies, according to its website.

In four days, the Phoenix Project received more than 350 applications from students. At the same time, project leaders reached out to personal connections, supervisors, mentors and alumni in search of partner employers willing to sponsor student teams.

There are currently around 150 project opportunities for the summer, including work with the online learning platform Coursera and the Allen Institute, a bioscience research organization. For ten weeks, students will work with these partners remotely in teams of two to four to complete project work that had been previously shelved because of coronavirus limitations, or projects adapted from traditional internship programs for a remote setting.

“For a lot of the students, it's the first time they're gaining any kind of exposure to client-based consulting work and seeing a technical project done from start to finish,” Gooneratne told The Chronicle.

The project also aims to offset the loss of networking and professional development opportunities that many corporate internships typically offer. Phoenix Project leaders have been working with various companies and the Duke University Career Center to develop speaker panels and workshops to supplement students’ project work throughout the 10-week program.

Senior Will Herbst found himself without many options after the majority of summer internship programs shifted to a remote structure or were canceled. 

“Basically, every lead that I had or company I’d been in communication with was completely derailed,” Herbst wrote in an email to The Chronicle. 

As a student interested in data science and computer science, it felt natural to apply when he heard about the Phoenix Project from a friend. Herbst also appreciated the flexibility that the project offered and the streamlined application and matching process, a welcome change from the overwhelming nature of traditional recruiting processes. After filling out a form describing his interests and availability, Herbst will be matched with a company and begin working with his team in a few weeks.

Although the genesis of the project was student-driven, faculty have stepped in to offer crucial support as project advisors and liaisons with the University. Steve McClelland, an executive in residence at the Pratt School of Engineering and a core faculty member in innovation and entrepreneurship, was able to provide the Phoenix Project with $80,000 in seed funding before companies had agreed to pay students and has served as a sounding board for student leaders.

The Phoenix Project was initially designed to help students who had already secured internships for the summer, but the interest has spread to other students looking to gain real-world experience. According to Gooneratne, the project “clearly fulfills a need.”

Although she and Truitt will be graduating next year, they hope to develop and sustain the program for future summers. They imagine the Phoenix Project growing as an alternative to summer programs like DukeEngage, where the main goal is for students to develop professional skills while working on a social impact project.

For all students, the project may not only be an opportunity for professional development—it may serve as a welcome constant in a world full of uncertainty.

“[The project] helps out both Duke students and businesses while providing a much-needed source of stability,” Herbst wrote.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly that a project was in the works, sponsored by Innovation and Entrepreneurship, to allow international students to receive visa authorization and payment for internships through Duke. The article has been updated to remove that information. The Chronicle regrets the error. 

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