COVID-19’s impact on the Brookings Institution’s Spring intern class of 2020

Brookings building

Just after New Year’s, I moved to Washington, D.C. after graduating early from Boston University to begin an events internship in the Brookings main Office of Communications. The Brookings Internship program provides students and recent graduates with a pre-professional experience in the Institution’s research programs and business offices. For two months, I had assisted with the organization, preparation, and staffing of the hundreds of events Brookings holds per year. By the time March rolled around, I had worked on events for former presidents and U.N. secretaries-general, shuffled schedules to accommodate congressional votes, and even learned the names of some of our frequent guests. I had also made a few friends, figured out the Metro system, and was starting to feel a little more at home in my new city.

Then, over the course of a week in early March, in-person events were cancelled, and our campus was closed first to outside guests, and then to employees due to the spread of COVID-19. As of March 13, Brookings employees and interns have been conducting the important business of the Institution via telework.

I found that the common thread among us has been the work … that continues unabated.

Over the first few weeks that I spent working remotely from my apartment in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of D.C., one of the media narratives that stood out to me was the focus on the “Class of 2020.” Around the country, college seniors who had left for spring break never returned to campus. Proms, championships, and graduation ceremonies—rites of passage taken for granted—were swiftly done away with at high schools and universities alike. While Brookings is home to hundreds of experts and scholars who have been providing analysis on the impact of COVID-19, the Institution also has a demographic that has been uniquely affected by this pandemic and the response to it: the Brookings spring interns, many of whom are members of the aforementioned Class of 2020. So, I asked my fellow interns to reflect on their own unique experiences of the coronavirus pandemic as part of the Brookings team.
I found that the common thread among us has been the work that, as demonstrated by the more than 200 pieces published about COVID-19 by Brookings scholars, continues unabated. Roma Venkateswaran, a research intern in the Governance Studies program, insisted that she had yet to find herself without a task since going remote.
Both she and Joshua Elias, a Center for Universal Education (CUE) intern in the Global Economy and Development program, mentioned that although the influx of assignments from their scholars had lessened slightly during the transition, they’ve had more opportunities to take on some personal and out-of-the-box projects. Elias, for example, found himself editing a video as his team looked for new ways to distribute information from CUE scholars.
The closure of schools, universities, and study programs in D.C. scattered many of the spring interns back to their parents’ homes across the country. However, the front-row seat to policy and research that comes with working at Brookings traveled with them. Riya Gavaskar, who works with the development team in Economic Studies, expressed gratitude for the access to the research of Brookings scholars across the policy spectrum. Specifically citing the Brookings webinars, she said that “they give more insight into the different policy measures that have been implemented in response to the pandemic.” Gavaskar also credited her position here for keeping her sane throughout her move back home to New Jersey and the switch to online classes as a junior at George Washington University, “My internship at Brookings is the only thing that has stayed consistent over the past few weeks,” she said.
Meanwhile, Henri-Nicolas Grossman’s position as a subnational threats intern in the Foreign Policy program prompted him to look outward: “The work I have done, which focuses on threats emanating from elements below the nation-state level, has helped me keep in mind the perspective of people all over the world in this time of crisis. Considering just how challenging the lives of people who are beholden to the black market are, I can only imagine what life is like under confinement.”

I’ve watched my team transition completely to a webinar platform at what feels like lightning speed.

Working in Foreign Policy also gave research intern Holly Cohen a global perspective.
“More than anything, the pandemic confirms the interrelatedness of our world,” she observed. “Global trade and travel have made the containment of the pandemic nearly impossible.” Despite this, Cohen said, “working at Brookings during this time has shown me that no matter the circumstance, no matter how unprepared we may be, if the work is important, it will get done.”

Cohen is right: the work has certainly been getting done. As the events intern, I wondered how I would keep busy if our campus remained closed beyond the first month. However, I’ve watched my team transition completely to a webinar platform at what feels like lightning speed. Within the first two weeks of virtual events, Brookings hosted three Federal Reserve chairs (two of them former chairs) to comment on COVID-19 and the economy. Now I have just as much, if not more, work to do than I did when we were still having in-person events.

Elias explained how the online transition is also affecting him and his colleagues in CUE: “The pandemic has shifted the focus of CUE’s work and global education because so many schools are now going online. It’s almost become a massive experiment to see what perceptions and learning outcomes will come from distance learning.”

Similarly, Venkateswaran’s work in Governance Studies has undergone a distinct shift. The bulk of her tasks were usually focused on 2020 election politics, which have now seemed to take a backseat to the public health crisis. However, she reported that her colleagues and others who study governance are adapting their work to the current situation, “Many people are finding connections between their research and the coronavirus pandemic, as it is exacerbating problems that existed before, such as regional inequality and voting restrictions.”

… the spring interns have seen changes to their other important roles as students, friends, siblings, children, and grandchildren.

Metropolitan Policy Program Intern Carl Romer hasn’t minded the switch to working from home, as he said the more flexible workday helps him keep busy and “function in some state of normalcy” while he’s social distancing. Romer also saw the opportunity for the world to gain some new perspective from this experience, “I think it really highlights whose work is essential and makes me question the necessity of the standard nine-to-five work scheduling model,” he said.

Although their contributions to Brookings have not let up, the spring interns have seen changes to their other important roles as students, friends, siblings, children, and grandchildren. While Grossman weathers the storm in D.C., he has been closely monitoring the situation in Bayonne, France, where his grandmother lives. “It is quite scary to think that they are so far away,” he said, “however, my grandmother has never been one for big social engagements. Jokingly, I told her that now is not the time to change!”

Romer, who grew up in Sarasota, Florida, also worried about his grandmother who lives by herself there. He was not alone in his concern for his home state, either. Elias is from Miami and was doubtful from early on that his community would follow social distancing guidelines closely enough. “I fear people remain unconvinced,” he said.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, Venkateswaran has moved back home with her parents, but she rarely sees them before 9:00 p.m. because they’re both scientific researchers working on COVID-19. Venkateswaran says that the long hours have become a pattern. Gavaskar has also returned home to New Jersey where her family is operating under strict quarantine guidelines. Her sister has a mild case of COVID-19 and is self-isolating accordingly. “It’s hard,” Gavaskar said, “I can’t hang out with my twin sister after not seeing her for months.”

It is staggering to think of an entire generation having to commemorate receiving their diplomas with a video conference.

Back in D.C., Cohen watched and waited as her school, George Washington University, at first extended spring break, then nixed in-person classes for the rest of the semester, and finally cancelled their traditional commencement ceremony on the National Mall, opting for a virtual alternative. Fearing a similar outcome, the Boston University student body rallied support on social media for a petition to postpone, rather than cancel this year’s commencement ceremony. In a moment of defiant optimism and solidarity, I went ahead and ordered my cap and gown. Thankfully, the president agreed and promised to find a way to honor my class with a proper ceremony when it was safe to do so.

It is staggering to think of an entire generation having to commemorate receiving their diplomas with a video conference. It may just be one day of pomp and circumstance, but for many students and their families, that one day represents years of hard work, sacrifice, and dreams. To have that moment taken away, even if for the greater good, is disappointing, to put it mildly.

For some students, however, cancelled ceremonies are further down on the list of concerns brought on by the effects of going remote. At Howard University, where Romer is finishing up his last class before graduation, classes have been converted to pass/fail with the option to choose a letter grade if necessary. While this is an attempt to ease the transition for students, Romer said that some are concerned about what this means for their scholarship requirements.

Elias, who is currently on leave from Columbia University, considered himself fortunate to have been able to fly home to Miami and work remotely, remarking on the impact of coronavirus on education around the world. “It’s highlighted the importance of advancing education innovations equitably,” he said. “The developed world can quickly adapt to the pandemic while most low-income countries will have to close their school doors.”

Several of the spring interns faced an abrupt end to their time on their respective college campuses, but they also encountered a similar, bittersweet goodbye to Brookings as their internships wrapped up this month. Gavaskar wished she could have said goodbye to her team in person and recalled the “welcoming and supportive environment” created by her development supervisors in Economic Studies. Venkateswaran also reflected fondly on the support she received from her supervisors, “They invested their time and energy into my personal and professional development. … They made my experience at Brookings one of the best internships I have ever had.”

Despite the remarkable adaptation to remote work, no amount of webinars or virtual happy hours could replace being on the Brookings campus for some. “I think that the most important aspect of my experience was being there,” Grossman said, “There is no alternative to being able to walk down the halls at Brookings and strike up a conversation with one of the many distinguished scholars, research assistants, or a fellow intern.”

… when this is all over, we will be able to look back and know for sure, that in a time of crisis, we did good work.

Although the final weeks of their internships unexpectedly took place away from Massachusetts Avenue, a common thread remains: the importance of the contributions that Brookings can make as the world combats this crisis. “The pandemic has shown just how ill-prepared the globe is but also how quickly everyone can join together to help,” remarked Elias.

Beyond our tenure here, so much is uncertain: returning to college classes, entering the job market when the world has entered a hiring freeze, a monumental presidential election, and above all, the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones. However, when this is all over, we will be able to look back and know for sure, that in a time of crisis, we did good work. While each of us faced unique challenges presented by COVID-19, we also got to be part of something much bigger than ourselves.

My fellow interns and I have wildly different interests, but we all ended up at the Brookings Institution because we all believe that fact-based research makes a difference. When faced with a crisis, people often look for two things: hope and information. As Brookings interns, we got to use our skills and passions—both shared and diverse—to help deliver reliable, fact-based information during a time when knowing the facts could mean the difference between life and death. So, when the world looks for hope and information, I know it will find some with the Brookings spring intern class of 2020.