9 Lessons I Learned After Working 9 Internships

It's a process.

Workin' Girl

Through the grace of God and 8 pt font on my resume, this summer, I have completed my 9th internship, *officially* bringing my intern career to a close.

Beginning my junior year of high school, I have clerked for a civil judge, interned at Shell Oil Company, Vinson & Elkins, the White House National Economic Council (under the Obama Administration), Goldman Sachs (3x), and campus internships through Cornell University and Jopwell.

What began as my childhood obsession with Michelle Obama and desire to gain early exposure to the legal field has led me down an incredibly insightful path and onto additional passions for business, public service, and now diverse forms of journalism.

Author at the 2017 Forbes Under 30 Summit.

Holding me up the whole way have been an unwavering coalition of mentors, sponsors, and family members, reaffirming the notion that "it takes a village." My first "real internship" was at age 16, clerking at the 164th Civil District Court under Judge Alexandra Smoots-Hogan – a black woman – and was secured through my uncle's outreach to his coworker's doctor's friend who then advocated for my pronounced interest in law, despite my age. Judge Smoots-Hogan took me under her wing and drilled into me the mantra that "there is a place for black women in politics and our voices matter." To this day, this internship represents so many foundational life lessons: sponsors and advocates matter, closed mouths don't get fed, always mentor and be mentored, and there is no substitute for hardwork.

9 internships later, these last few years have certainly been a journey – but it's just the beginning. As I promised Judge Smoots-Hogan, my success isn't defined by numbers but by impact. There is nothing I want more than to see hundreds and thousands of women of color break through glass ceilings and simultaneously reach back to pull more ladies up with them.

In a world where there are numerous obstacles and institutional inequities preventing women of color from access to life-changing resources and opportunities, we truly need to support each other and continually work to be the plug for opportunities.

"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity." – Viola Davis

While I do not think that it's necessary for every student to complete 9 internships – even 3 internships are a lot – all students looking to begin their careers should be open to pursuing their interests and considering new opportunities that continuously arise. My internships have been an advanced trial period, allowing me to explore a number of potential paths before permanently committing to one thing. This insight has helped me form a well-rounded perspective regarding where my passions truly lie, and several years later, I'm still discovering new things.

Here are 9 lessons that I learned after working 9 internships that you can apply to your professional journey.

1. You won't love every job, but you will learn a lot about yourself.

Learning what you don't like is just as insightful as learning what you do. During my internship at the court, I quickly learned that Law & Order was not an accurate depiction of the legal system. Criminal law scared the daylights out of me. Rather than call off law altogether, I began to gravitate more towards corporate crime and public policy. This revelation not only saved me time and *emotional trauma*, but led me down a path that would be integral in my future roles at the law firm and financial services.

2. There will be moments of self-doubt.

We're not invincible. You can have all the training, education, and support systems under the sun and still have an off day every once in a while. There were days when I was working at the White House where I would literally run to the bathroom, call my mom, and cry after receiving negative feedback on a project. The work was grueling and seemingly never-ending (and we were unpaid). In those off moments, the true lesson was found in how I pulled myself back together and reattempted a project rather than wallowing in the failure itself. As the old saying goes, "Many times what we perceive as an error is actually a gift."

3. Do your research.

So simple, and yet so important. You wouldn't a take a test without studying, so you shouldn't go into an interview or coffee chat without basic understanding of an opportunity you're interested in. The internet is a beautiful thing. It can be overwhelming, so take your time, but it is incredible how many programs, scholarships, and opportunities I have found from simple Google searches and even Twitter and Facebook posts. Always ensure that you are taking advantage of the information that you do have within your grasp.

4. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes.

From my first mentor, Judge Smoots-Hogan, to classmates and division managers, I have learned that mentors are everywhere. They won't always be women of color, or even women at all. In fact, some of my most influential mentors have been white men. The point is, most of us need someone in our corner guiding and supporting us, be it professionally or psychologically, and there is no make or model for what that assistance will look like. I have had ladies that I once mentored as freshmen go on to advocate and connect me with important opportunities. You never know when you are going to need a helping hand and what people say about you when you are not there can make a tremendous difference.

5. Your brand and reputation matter.

That being said, your reputation matters. As Oprah said in her British Vogue interview, no one is expecting you to have a brand all figured out as a young adult. However, being highly regarded as someone who is eager to learn, always ready to lend a helping hand, and/or consistently provides good quality work can "brand you" as a good investment, encouraging others to take a chance on you.

Related: 5 Effortless Ways to Boost Your Reputation at Work

Author, Lydia Anglin. Photo by Kelechi Mpamaugo.

6. Closed mouths don't get fed.

My philosophy for most of my career has been "the worst they can say is no." Aim high, and if you fall short, you will still be in a comfortable place. Particularly as students and young professionals, we have the ability to ask for help and seek out guidance from very established people, because in an ideal world, many would "like to help the younger generation." For an example, during one of my internships, I invited the global head of my department out to coffee, and to my surprise, he quickly responded and was very enthusiastic about meeting an intern. This privilege does lessen as we get older, and should be undertaken carefully, but definitely take advantage of it while you can.

7. Start small, but keep the big picture in mind.

For many of us, our first jobs are not glamorous. Before I interned at the court, I worked a retail job… and it was so difficult! However, I learned important customer service skills, patience, and the value of always presenting yourself as being willing to learn. Those same skills have applied to every internship and role I pursued since. Even Michelle Obama was once a 20-something.

Aim high and build upon integral professional values like persistence and hard work.

8. You have to put in the work – period.

While it's no secret that some have it easier than others, frustratingly so, there truly is no substitute for hard work. This does not mean work yourself to wits end – mental health and coalition building are very important – but the race will not run itself. Mentors, sponsors, and professional development programs serve as fuel along the way, but alone, they rarely are enough. It's your brand, your career, your future. Put in the work.

9. Reach forward and reach back.

As said by Maya Angelou, "I come as one but stand as ten thousand." Our successes extend so much further than ourselves. From Ruby Bridges to Katherine Johnson, someone once walked so you can run. As you open doors, remember to reach back and give the key to those who follow you.

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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