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Summer 2014

An Easy Commute

Melissa Cotignola, Ed.M.’14, found a way to be in two places at once. This past year, while a student in the Education Policy Management Program, Cotignola was also an intern with I’m First, a nonprofit organization based in Washington D.C. that focuses on helping first-generation college students get to and through college.

So how did she commute between school in Cambridge and work in D.C.? She didn’t. Instead, Cotignola is one of the growing number of students taking on virtual internships, or positions that don’t ever require them to step foot in an office.

“This all started when I called I'm First for an informational interview. I've been really interested in higher education and college access. My research showed that they were a great organization to reach out to,” Cotignola explains. “Once we got talking, I realized that I would love to help out but couldn't physically go to D.C. They offered me the opportunity to work remotely. I'm so glad they did.”

Launched in 2012, I’m First is the newest initiative of the Center for Student Opportunities organization, a nonprofit founded in 2006 that provides resources and information for first-generation college students in an effort to empower them on the path to and through college. But I’m First also goes one step further: It not only supports these students, it helps them support one another through webinars and blogs. It also partners with more than 100 universities across the nation committed to helping first-generation students, such as working through I’m First to host webinars about topics such as financial aid or preorientation programs.

Although she is not a first-generation student herself, Cotignola says that her father was, and his story serves to remind her of the importance of the work she is doing. Despite graduating in the top of his class, his high school guidance counselor told him that the local city college was his only realistic option.

“The truth of the matter is that if he had known how to seek out the right resources, he probably could have gone away to a great school with a ton of merit and need-based financial aid,” Cotignola says. “He worked full time through city college and went on to law school after that. His story has always inspired me, and it reminds me of how important it is to have access to quality information and good mentors.”

With I’m First, Cotignola focused mostly on the college partnerships —researching which partner schools would be able to give the best advice about various webinar topics, blogging articles relating to issues of first-generation students, and developing an online newsletter for all the college partners to collaborate and share best practices.

“The great thing about an online internship was that I could set my own hours,” she says. “Plus, I get to spread my reach and get experience outside of the Boston area.”

As her virtual internship was ending, Cotignola experience moved her back to Boston when she was offered a job as a program manager at PrepNow, a Boston-based education technology and tutoring company.

“I started here a few weeks ago and I love it!” she says. “Right now my job involves recruiting and hiring tutors from all over the country to tutor on our innovative online platform.”