At the beginning of the summer, Sneha Makhijani ‘22 wasn’t sure how the COVID-19 pandemic would change her service experience as a SECU Public Fellows Intern. As it turns out, conversations she had while serving behind a screen and behind a mask offered Makhijani a new perspective on the pandemic, rural North Carolina and relationships with people from different backgrounds.
Makhijani ’22, a biology major and avid healthcare volunteer, was excited to apply her classroom experiences and community endeavors to service work. Through the SECU Public Fellows Internship program, the nonprofit Men and Women United for Youth and Families in Delco, NC, hired Makhijani as a youth team leader and community health assistant working remotely throughout the summer.
“I was really fortunate that UNC Chapel Hill, the SECU Foundation, and my site all adapted,” said Makhijani, a biology major from Cary, NC. “My supervisors were comfortable letting me do a hybrid of remote and on-site work. We really adapted together through this.”
Makhijani juggled multiple projects through her role as a summer intern at Men and Women United. The nonprofit exists to promote education, increase awareness of available resources in the community and provide services that lead to more independent and self-sufficient families in rural Columbus and Bladen Counties. Makhijani’s role allowed her to interact with the rural North Carolina community from both a mentorship and community health perspective.
As the youth team leader, Makhijani served as a mentor for the Men and Women United Youth Ambassador Food Program: a youth-led council of 26 children from rural communities in the area. Throughout the summer, Makhijani worked to plan virtual trainings for the children. Connecting through video calls, Makhijani and the children focused on building skills for college and beyond. For example, one of the trainings she coordinated in late July focused on diversity, equity and inclusion.
The children and their families also work on a farm operated by Men and Women United. The nonprofit adapted its programs at the onset of the pandemic so that participants could continue to harvest produce safely. The program participants sell the produce at farmers markets in the area, and Makhijani worked to help grow that network of retail opportunities.
Makhijani’s other focus was community-health-oriented. In the community health assistant role, Makhijani supported the operations of the community health center operated by Men and Women United.
“These rural communities have much less access to health care and medical support as-is, and COVID-19 is definitely taking a greater toll on their mental and physical health,” Makhijani said.
Men and Women United organized health workshops, held both virtually and in-person, and in-person health screenings that included temperature checks. At these in-person screenings and through her other projects, Makhijani met families from the area.
“This experience of being able to help communities, especially children of underserved areas, has definitely been the most interesting aspect of my internship,” Makhijani said.
For her, one of the most meaningful moments of her summer was a conversation with a 14-year-old boy at the community center.
“While we both came from different backgrounds, we had so many things that we bonded over, and so many different experiences that we shared with each other,” Makhijani said. Looking back at her experience, she realized that she learned the most during the summer simply by talking to people and listening to their stories.
“I’ve really come to know how agriculture is a really important aspect of rural communities,” she said. “It’s not just a livelihood; it’s a way of life. Being able to observe and be part of the work that communities are doing all over N.C., I have greater respect and awareness of work that’s happening in my state and in my country.”
When asked what advice she might give to a future SECU Public Fellows Intern, Makhijani was enthusiastic in her response.
“It was such a great learning experience for me,” she said. “You’re going to come across a lot of different people from different backgrounds, with different ideas, opinions and thoughts that might not always match up to yours. But it’s really important to keep an open mind. You might learn a thing or two in the process.”
Sneha Makhijani is one of nine SECU Public Fellows Interns from UNC-Chapel Hill in summer 2020. The SECU Public Fellows Internship program places college students in paid summer internships at community organizations throughout rural North Carolina. The Carolina Center for Public Service administers the SECU Public Fellows Internship Program at UNC-Chapel Hill. To learn more about our 2020 cohort of SECU Public Fellows Interns, read our June 1 press release.