Summer at the Smithsonian

Katie Leskowitz


My STEP Signature Project was to participate in the John Glenn College’s Washington Academic Internship Program. Through this program I completed 12 hours of coursework on policy analysis while working full time at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. At the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage I worked for one of the curators/museum educators and helped plan the 50th Folklife Festival, a living museum on the national mall.

I had no clue what folk was before this internship. I learned that folk is a very broad term used to describe the culture of a community. There is occupational, regional, religious, ethnic or familial folk, and it is a term that is truly inclusive. The focus on history, inclusivity, diversity, culture, and overall, love of people is what matched my interests with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. I walked into the office and I instantly knew that people at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage were different. I could not imagine a more inclusive, accepting and friendly office. I had this idea of D.C and the office life as constantly competitive, but I soon learned that our office was more like a family. This summer truly taught me the importance and respect of heritage, history, diversity, and folk and how this should be included in daily life. 

The Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage’s motto is “culture of, by, and for the people.” This means that the Center acts as an ambassador in showcasing, sustaining, researching, and educating the world on different cultures of the world. This also means making sure that it is in partnership with communities, and not using a community’s culture. The Center also makes sure that the cultures that they are showcasing are truly for the people, meaning that people that want to learn about the different cultures have fun, are educated and most importantly at no cost, so everyone can experience it. I was proud to be a part of this mission by working the Folklife Festival and showcasing the occupational folk of the circus. I truly transformed this summer, not only did I truly discover that history is my passion, but I have a new respect for folk and culture and the importance of diversity.

By developing free and educational STEM and arts based activities, the museum education team was able to teach children and families about the Circus, while having fun. My job involved a variety of different responsibilities. Before the festival, I helped organize a Material Cultural Forum presentation for 100 Smithsonian professionals. The Material Culture Forum was a special event for the 50th anniversary of the Folklife Festival which included a tour of the center, lecture presentation, an ice cream social, and tour of the festival site. I was in charge of RSVPs and check-ins for the tours. I also did RSVPs for the ice cream social, in addition to serving ice cream.

For the Folklife festival preparations, I worked on  the developed STEM and arts based educational activities, which included writing instructional guides. One of my main jobs during the festival was calculating the budget and supplies needed for these activities. We had 600,000 visitors at the 2017 festival, with a limited budget. I had to be very frugal and economically smart about what activities would be possible with these constraints. I also recruited and planned the visit of over 1,000 summer camp children at the Folklife Festival. I called 50 summer camps in first two days of my internship and catered the festival to the needs of the summer camp, including giving them a personalized schedule. During the festival, I worked the Circus Science kid’s education tent which including leading various STEM activities leading the craft table or teaching hula hooping. After the festival, I helped with analysis on visitor and summer camp satisfaction at the Folklife Festival. With that information, I wrote a blog on the success of the Circus Science tent. I also transcribed the discussion sessions at the festival and captured the oral histories, a focus of the Center.

By completing this variety of tasks that I was able to be a part of. I liked that every week I had a completely different project that really allowed me to learn multiple skills. I got to meet so many different people, from different backgrounds that truly showcased the power of folk and culture. Another cool part of my internship was the living museum aspect. When you write a historical research paper, it is hard to see the benefits, but the festival has a tangible result and as an intern I got to see the joy that my hard work had brought. It was a lot of work developing the educational activities, but seeing the smiles from doing crafts or hula hooping, made it all worth it!

I absolutely loved my internship and one of the biggest advantages was how great the people at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage are. I was amazed by the kindness and generosity of my supervisor has shown me and my fellow interns. I thought that because I was an intern that no one would want to hear my ideas or care about me, or that I would have many responsibilities. But my supervisor welcomed all of us, whether that was for a trip to the Maryland Folklife Festival or a sushi night at her house. I feel so lucky that I have found such strong female role models at my work like my boss. The other strong women in my life are my coworkers. I feel encouraged every day I show up to work by seeing the intelligence and hard work that my boss and coworkers do. They truly are my role models. The first day I got to work, my other coworkers took me under their wing. I was so nervous that I did not know how to use the phone or send an email, but my coworkers answered all my questions and welcomed me to the office. My coworkers have become a great support for me while I have spent my time here. They were always down to hear me complain about my policy paper or tell me what restaurant to go to. My coworkers have truly become my friends here and my internship experience proved to me that I could be a strong woman in the workforce. 

I have truly met some of the best people and had a lot of personal growth. Three months later, I cannot believe that I was so worried and that I thought I was not cut out for my first “real” job. I am so glad that I pushed myself out of my comfort zone by coming to D.C. and taking a job that would challenge me. I learned that everyone once was an intern and that people are willing to help if you ask for it. I feel more confident in myself that I do belong in the office world and I can work a “real” job. This experience taught me to never doubt my abilities and that I have the skills to do the job, especially with support along the way. Most importantly, I learned that there are some really great people here in D.C. and I feel so lucky that I got the opportunity to spend my summer with them. I became more educated on issues of culture, folk and inclusivity. This internship made me even more passionate about my dreams. I am more driven than ever to work in a museum. I love museums, education, culture and people and this experience made me love that even more.

One thought on “Summer at the Smithsonian

  1. It sounds like you were able to help a lot of people learn more about STEM fields while also getting some great cultural immersion at the same time.

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