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Smithsonian, Emerson Collective Interns Reflect on Experience with KHS

Smithsonian Affiliations, in partnership with Emerson Collective, introduced an innovative and collaborative pilot initiative increasing access to internship opportunities for college-level students. Designed to employ and activate youth around the country with an opportunity to connect with communities through digital learning, this pilot was engineered to reinvent Smithsonian Affiliations’ approach to summer internships.

The Smithsonian Affiliate Digital Learning and Engagement Internship, structured as an entirely virtual experience, introduced 75 rising sophomores, juniors, and seniors in college to the impact of museum work and empowered students to address complex global challenges. Students were selected from an applicant pool of 1,595 young people and 307 colleges and universities. As a cohort, they represent just under 60 colleges and universities and are working from June 14 to Aug. 6 in communities spanning from Washington, D.C., to Alaska.

As a Smithsonian Affiliate, the Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) joined a string of organizations to pilot this virtual internship opportunity. This program allotted the expansion of intern capacity and diversified KHS’s involvement with colleges and universities across the nation. KHS hosted three students researching varying topics and developing Smithsonian Learning Labs, which live on the Smithsonian Institute’s website. These learning labs are educational tools for children aged 13-18 emphasizing social issues rooted in historical context.


Daniel Ren

The program gave KHS staff a unique opportunity to mentor college students who aren’t in the history field. Sarah Schmitt, Oral History Administrator, says that her mentorship experience was “the opportunity to discuss Kentucky’s past, present, and future with someone who is neither a Kentuckian nor a historian.” Her mentee, Daniel Ren, a rising sophomore at Emory University, plans to major in finance yet chose to center his learning lab on Kentucky’s LGBTQ+ history.

“For my learning lab, I had the privilege of researching and telling the narrative and history of Kentucky’s LGBTQ+ history, as well as working with Sarah Schmitt, a wonderful asset who offered ideas to guide my research with some great resources. I even used a quote from Sarah in one of my conclusion slides for my learning lab.” Ren adds, “Overall, I really appreciate having the wonderful opportunity to work with KHS and the Smithsonian this summer virtually for my internship. I learned a lot, and I believe that it was a very valuable experience for me.”


Gabi Dinkin

Gabi Dinkin, a double major in philosophy and sociology at Whitman College, sites a similar experience with KHS. “I have been interested in Southern History for quite some time but have never had the opportunity to engage with it in the way I was able to this summer. For my learning lab, I wanted to focus on education systems in Kentucky.” Dinkin adds, “My supervisor, Mandy Higgins, helped me to narrow down my topic to Berea College by providing a large selection of resources and guidance. I also had the opportunity to meet with individuals such as Tracy K’Meyer, Professor at the University of Louisville, and Sharyn Mitchell, archivist at Berea College.”


Daniel Song

Daniel Song, an economics major at Swarthmore College on the pre-law track, centered his learning lab on labor history in Kentucky. “Using the Harlan County War as a case study, my Learning Lab collection provided a broad overview of this event for an audience of middle and high school students, examining the strategies employed by many different actors and emphasizing the impact of labor movements during this time. In doing so, I made full use of the Digital Collection and Artifacts Collection to tell this story through the vast array of historical documents and objects available at the Kentucky Historical Society, using Smithsonian and publicly available resources where necessary.”


Access to Smithsonian resources allowed KHS to form relationships with scholars from across the country. The Smithsonian and Emerson Collective teams had these relationships in mind when creating this internship format. “With the support of Emerson Collective, the Smithsonian and its Affiliate partners hope this pilot internship will create future museum advocates and change leaders by helping students understand the role museums can play in addressing our biggest challenges and continue to inspire them to improve the world around them,” said Lonnie Bunch, Smithsonian Secretary. Dinkin emphasizes this goal, stating, “Working as an intern for KHS this summer made me think about the importance of presenting history clearly without straying away from inherent complexities.”

Purposefully designed as a collaborative virtual opportunity, the internship provides access to high-quality, paid learning experiences for a diverse group of college students regardless of their physical location. Students were grouped into virtual teams of three and matched with 25 Smithsonian Affiliate organizations across the country, removing physical residency barriers and associated costs that deter students’ ability to participate in internships.

“This pilot is about better understanding our reach and ability to activate youth around the country who would not otherwise have such opportunities,” said Jamie Van Leeuwen, director of youth and community engagement at Emerson Collective. “With the collective challenges we face as a country, it is critical now more than ever that we turn to our young leaders to help us respond to the needs of our communities.”

Throughout the internship, the Smithsonian is the connector between the interns, the Affiliate organizations, and Emerson Collective, providing access to experts, conversations with Smithsonian leadership, and enrichment opportunities that aim to engage the students with each other and their Affiliate organization. Emerson Collective provides programming opportunities that help facilitate conversations between interns and leaders in education, immigration, and racial justice. Students receive training on the Smithsonian Learning Lab platform. They will produce three educational modules, or collections, for each Affiliate to publish for a public audience targeting middle and high school students. After the internship, students will participate in an online capstone event where interns will present their Learning Lab collections and share how their understanding of the core topic areas changed as a result of their work.


About Smithsonian Affiliations

Smithsonian Affiliations is a national outreach program that develops long-term, collaborative partnerships with museums, educational and cultural organizations to share Smithsonian collections, build collaborative networks, and engage learners of all ages with Smithsonian resources. More information is available at


About Smithsonian Learning Lab

Smithsonian Learning Lab is an interactive website for the discovery and creative use of the Smithsonian’s digital collections and tools—more than a million images, videos, texts, audio recordings, and activities. More information is available at


KHS Intern Learning Labs

Daniel Ren – LGBTQ+ History in Kentucky

Gabi Dinkin – Berea College

Daniel Song – The Harlan County War


About Emerson Collective

Emerson Collective focuses on creating systemic change in education, immigration, climate, and cancer research and treatment. More information is available at

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