Inaugural Internship Program Empowers Women of Color in STEM

The Women’s Foundation of Arkansas provided 14 internships at four companies this summer.

The 14 women in the Tjuana Byrd Internship Program
Fourteen students participated in the inaugural Tjuana Byrd Summer Internship Program. Photo courtesy of Naija White.

Naija White, a senior studying information systems at Southern Arkansas University, is working toward a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). Her most recent step in achieving this goal involved interning at Windstream as a member of the inaugural class of the Tjuana Byrd Summer Internship Program.

“I would definitely recommend it,” White says. “I loved the whole program.”

The new internship program is an initiative of the Women’s Foundation of Arkansas. Named for the first Black president of WFA’s board of directors, the 10-week program was open to women of color attending college in Arkansas and pursuing STEM degrees. 

For the inaugural year, 14 women interned at four central Arkansas companies — Acxiom,  Central Arkansas Water, L’Oréal and Windstream. Interns were paid $15 to $20 an hour and provided free housing as well as access to mentorship and networking events.

Companies and interns also participated in diversity, equity and inclusion training which prompted at least one company to update its DEI policy, WFA operations and communications manager Sophie Wise says. The program is designed to increase access to and representation in STEM fields for women of color in Arkansas by eliminating barriers of cost, social capital and location.

“This was a really great opportunity for us to not only help these women of color and hopefully keep them within the state of Arkansas, but also help companies realize the excuse of ‘well where can I find this talent’ is no longer a valid excuse,” Wise says.

WFA offers programming focused on education for girls in 8th through 12th grade as well as support for women in careers. The nonprofit created the new internship program to work with college students in order to close the gap in that pipeline.

After seeing family members work in IT, White decided to follow that same path and says the field suits her because she’s a puzzle solver and strategic thinker. After graduation, she plans to earn a master’s degree in cybersecurity.

STEM has long been a male dominated field and White has become used to being one of the only women in her classes. The disparity doesn’t intimidate her. It inspires her.

“I feel like it motivates me to want to be a woman in that type of position to be able to advocate for other women,” she says.

In 1970, women accounted for 38 percent of the country’s workforce and 8 percent of STEM workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. By 2019, women made up 48 percent of the nation’s workforce and 27 percent of STEM workers. 

Of the science and engineering jobs held by women in 2015, Hispanics accounted for 6.4 percent while Black women made up 5.7 percent, according to the National Science Board. While women of color are a minority in the industry, White’s internship afforded her the opportunity to connect with other women in the field. 

“At SAU there’s people that do what I do, but it’s not very common so it was nice to be around other girls that do what I do,” White says.

Oluwakemi Oshunkeye is a 20-year-old from Nigeria who loves technology and is studying information systems at the University of Central Arkansas. Her internship at Acxiom has been extended through December. 

“As an international student it’s really hard to get an internship, a job in the United States because of our status,” Oshunkeye says. “And the fact that they gave me an internship and they extended it was really a joy to me because I don’t know where I would be if not for the internship.”

Overall, the UCA senior enjoyed her experience and was impressed with the networking opportunities as well as the housing accommodations. In addition to saving money on lodging, her apartment was stocked with essentials and Oshunkeye says it felt like “a five-star treatment.”

“My experience has been really great,” she says. “The program is really lovely. The fact that they provided housing for us is really great.” 

As part of the internship, Oshunkeye was given a mentor who would check in and provide tips about school, self care and relationships. Her mentor is “like a mom” with whom she can stay in touch after the internship program ends.

“Through this opportunity I learned that there are still people out there that want to help,” Oshunkeye says. “There are still people out there that know the struggle, even if they can’t relate, that there are still people out there that want to help.”

The pilot year of the program went well and Wise says through this experience, WFA has learned a lot and already has ideas for improving the program next year. Goals include expanding the initiative to six companies and 24 interns, and to make sure students are receiving similar compensation. 

Additionally, Wise says they’ll use tools like personality surveys to enhance the rooming situation. They’ll also be really intentional about networking events and setting expectations for interns.

Companies interested in participating in next year’s program can contact WFA. Applications for students will open in November or December with the goal of onboarding the new cohort in early 2022 before they begin their internships in late May or early June of next year. The intention of WFA’s work is to create a more equitable Arkansas when it comes to racial and financial equity, Wise says. 

“We understand that minority populations and women of color really do just get the short end of the stick to be blunt, they really just do,” she says. “And so it was really, really important for us that we start a trend with this and we’re really, really excited to continue the work, but we’re just trying to close that pipeline of a woman empowered.”

More information about the Tjuana Byrd Internship Program is available on WFA’s Girls of Promise website.

Antoinette Grajeda
Antoinette Grajeda

Antoinette Grajeda is an Arkansas-based journalist. She has covered race, culture, politics, health, education and the arts for NPR affiliates as well as print and digital publications since 2007.