Hacking the Atkins Fellows Program

This summer, we participated in the Atkins Fellows program at the J. Murrey Atkins Library at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. We were the fifth cohort of the program, which has now hosted MLIS students from UNC Chapel Hill, UNC Greensboro, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Simmons College, San José State University, University of South Carolina, and Syracuse University.

Fellows apply to work on specific projects, which change each year, and spend the rest of their summer participating in workshops, panels, and other professional development opportunities.

The Fellows program is one of the only opportunities for a paid fellowship in an academic library and, while we feel very lucky to have participated in the program and highly encourage you to apply for a future cohort, we understand not everyone will be able to participate. So, we’ve collected some of our thoughts about the program and how you can apply what it does best to other fellowships or internships.

Making a short-term move to somewhere new

Finding a job after graduate school is competitive and getting experience wherever you can may give you an advantage come graduation. The Fellows program provides that, but at the cost of uprooting your life for 2.5 months. Finding a place to live, making friends plus missing your loved ones, and learning to live in a new city while adjusting to a new position brings a certain amount of stress. It’s hard to immerse yourself in work while also feeling like you have to find time to go out and explore your new temporary home. This isn’t a problem unique to this program and, luckily, the program coordinator curates events and inexpensive things to do that, in our experience, served as a great springboard to go out and explore the city together. Additionally, the fellows came together every month (at least) to check in on our projects and each other. Creating time to learn about one another and our experiences helped us adjust, settle, and build a life in a new place — even if it’s very short-term. Even if you don’t move for a fellowship, there is still value in creating communities and taking on short-term projects in your areas of interest.

Getting paid — and being valued

Many of us looked into summer internship and fellowship opportunities at multiple libraries and cultural institutions. The pay is normally very low at these positions, which means these opportunities are financially inaccessible for many people. The Fellows program stood out for providing a moving allowance and a higher hourly wage than other summer job opportunities. Even so, budgeting was challenging for all of us. The timing of the pay schedule meant that our first paychecks were small and we didn’t receive a full month wages until we were two months into the fellowship. For several of us this necessitated borrowing money (which is not an option for everyone).

If you plan to seek credit for your fellowship or to take another summer class, consider how much you will be getting paid for the position or whether you will be able to secure financial aid, especially if you are taking a position during the summer. While the Fellows program did pay enough that it made it possible to pay for credits as well as living costs; if you can hold off, it might be easier to fulfill any internship or fellowship credits during the academic year.

Connections and committees

The Fellows program offers a mixture of formal and informal professional development opportunities. We were invited to sit in on any committees that interested us and the program coordinator arranged several panels such as resumé reviews and career talks. These opportunities gave us insight into the daily work of academic librarians and prepared us for what to expect from a career in academic libraries (if we decide to continue on that path). Several fellows also took the opportunity to shadow and have informational interviews with librarians at Atkins and in the Charlotte community; which allowed for networking across library types and exploration outside of the academic world. The Fellows program cultivated an environment that encouraged us to seek out mentorship, whether that meant asking librarians to get coffee and chat about their career path or attending meetings to give feedback and contribute to current library programming.

Being busy and setting boundaries

When you only have a limited period of time to work on a project or assignment, there can be serious pressure to fill every minute with tasks to reach your overall goal. Additionally, when you are given opportunities to work on new skills or explore new areas in your career path, you feel like you can’t afford to turn down a learning opportunity when it comes to you. However, sometimes there’s just too much to do in one summer! When you find yourself being pushed to the limit of how much you can achieve in a short amount of time, it gives you the opportunity to evaluate your goals and priorities for your career. All projects break down into components and, as hard as this can be to believe, you don’t need to take part in every component to have a successful project. The Fellows program offers lots of opportunities through the variety of projects available every summer, which allows you to set your own boundaries about how much you can or want to do. When you find yourself overworked and overwhelmed, take time to think about what experiences are most valuable to you and your current learning goals. Setting the boundary of doing only a few things will improve your ability to work on those projects and ensure you leave having built a strong skill.

Going your own way

On the flip side, you may have down time during the summer while you are waiting for feedback from your supervisor or due to other holds on the project. There were many points during the program where we just did not have enough to do. While we’re sure this is common in many other internships and professional positions, it felt especially like we needed to have something brewing all the time. There were many reasons why we needed to create our own projects and spaces, but capitalizing on connections across the library allowed us to find related work to fill in the cracks. If this is happening to you, be up front with your supervisor and clear about your objectives for the project and how these additional projects can support those. For example, if you are working on a project related to creating library guides, look for a way to help with instruction session preparation. Document all of your work and be prepared to connect it, both in your own reflection and in your final reports and presentations.

For more information about the Atkins Fellows program, and to apply, check out the website.

Xena Becker (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Jenny Carlos (University of North Carolina Greensboro), Eileen Lopez (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), Jude Wasserman (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and Georgia Westbrook (Syracuse University) were the 2019 Atkins Fellows and are current MLIS students with interests across librarianship. More information about them is available in their biographies on the program website.

Photo courtesy of www.flickr.com/photos/chucka_nc/8617213059.



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