Sarah Concepcion is the Co-Department Head of the writing department at the DME Internship. Sarah got her bachelor’s degree in English at George Mason University in Virginia and is currently working on getting her master’s degree in History. Sarah finds the changes from the pandemic not detrimental to having a community with other interns and the virtual office hours that she and her other CO-DH have at the end of each month help open up discussion or questions writing interns might have. Sarah was also active member in the Folger’s Shakespeare Library which is one of the largest collections of Shakespeare’s work in the world. Sarah said she wanted to join the writing department because it is “simple outlining of a person’s life, explaining what they do and how their service was important. It also gives the public an idea of the types of variations there are in military service.” Her responsibilities as a Department Head include reviewing the metrics of intern’s writing projects and deciding what would best help new interns.
Use the audio player to listen to Sarah’s full interview, or read the transcript below:
Ep 21: Grace Yang – DME Interns
Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide. Hello and welcome to the Department of Veterans Affairs Digital Media Engagement Interns Podcast. This podcast will focus on the experience and work of various interns on the Digital Media Engagement’s team who are working with us as part of the Virtual Student Federal Service internship within the department of Veteran’s Affairs. This podcast is two interns having a conversation about their experiences in order to highlight the work, as well as encourage application to this program and friendship amongst the interns. So please join us as we highlight and get to know some of the many interns that are part of our program. Thank you for listening!
Mercedes Hesselroth: So unlike most students at this internship who are undergraduates, you’re actually receiving your master’s degree. Can you talk a little bit about that, and how your research process has changed during COVID and remote learning?
Sarah Concepcion: Well I knew I wanted to get my masters after I graduated in 2017. Originally I was going to take a different path from my current studies. I was going to get a masters degree in education, but I ended up going on the history track. What I found interesting in terms of how this has affected that kind of research is that it hasn’t really changed things for me. As a history researcher I tend to do a lot of my studies online. I am pretty good at working on electronic files and figuring out how to access electronic archives, especially now that my school has increased the amount of electronic archives that we have access to. They’ve even created a special connection with the happy trust, I believe, and we are now able to access even more electronic materials. So, personally for me COVID hasn’t changed a lot of the way I research things, it just means I have less access to physical materials.
MH: How did you make the decision to go from an undergraduate in English to a master’s in History?
SC: Well when I first started my undergraduate degree I wasnt sure what I wanted to major in. I knew at the time it was either going to be in English or History. I was even considering double majoring in both of them because they’re not too far from each other. Then I decided when I got to my 4 year school — I am here and it is going to take too much time to double major. I was taking a full load of classes at the time (about 4 or 5 a semester) so if I tried to double major it would’ve been a complete overload for me emotionally and physically. I decided to go with English because Virginia schools tend to have a very good English department. My school, GMU, tends to put out a lot of writers actually. A lot of our alumni come from the English department. That’s why Virginia hosts the fall book festival which I actually find really fascinating and a good exposure to the types of english available. So I decided to major in English, but minor in History. When it came to my graduate studies I decided to switch from education I knew that with an English master’s degree I could do some things, but at the same time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do those things. In truth, English masters degrees are good for some things but they don’t allow a huge access to work outside of community colleges or maybe some professional writing. I knew with a history degree that would give me at least some different work so I could use that degree in Museum Studies, I could work in an archive, but still have the option of academic work. So when it came to deciding my master’s degree I knew I wanted to go with history because it was something I could use my English degree for, but at the same time get access to a wider range of jobs.
MH: So this is actually your second year in the internship. Can you take us all the way back to summer 2019. What drew you to this internship and why did you want to work in the writing department specifically?
SC: I found out about this internship actually through my school. GMU sends out these reminders about job opportunities and internships. It’s actually how I found out about this internship and my previous internship at the Fulton Shakespeare Library in Washington DC. When I heard about it I was really interested. Even though my family does have veterans, like many others I had no idea what that meant, what that signified other than that they were veterans. I thought that working with this internship will let me learn more about different veterans that are out there aside from my family. It also gave me experience working in both subjects that I love — both history and english. I wanted to join the writing department because I thought “You know this is not something that I can’t do. It is a simple outlining of a person’s life, explaining what they do and how their service was important.” It also gives the public an idea of all the variations there are to military service. There’s not just the soldier. It is everything from a flight technician, to an infantryman, to military police. I think it’s a problem that lots of people don’t realize that those types of jobs are also military service and so writing about it gives the public a better idea of how individualized military service can be but also the training to take on these jobs and perform them no matter the time period.
MHL This year is actually the first year that you are a co-Head. Can you talk about the process of going from being a regular intern to taking on a leadership role and what your differences in responsibilities are?
SC: So in May 2020 this year I found out about the opportunity for DH coming up. One of the former DHs for Special Projects, Michaela Yesis, actually suggested to me that I should join Special Projects because I had written so many AVS’s at the time. I thought about it but I realized that in order to do that I would also have to oversee Operation Song as well. That’s neat but I had no idea how it works. When I heard that a writing department headship would also be offered I thought that’s something I know I could do. It is clear, and it is also not something I would have to do on my own, especially with a co-department head who I currently work with. I applied and I was accepted, especially since I have written so many different types of projects for this internship. It was pretty fast forward for them to say “Yeah she is going to be able to do this.” Although we have added some new projects since then.
What’s been different has been deciding what projects can help new interns. When I first started in 2019 we didn’t have the Boot Camps that we have now. We didn’t have Mock VOD training, which is a new thing we are requiring for the new crop of interns. We also didn’t have all the documents explaining how to do things, it was kind of just looking at old cards and deciding where to go from there. Since I started, myself and the Co-DH Jewel Luckow, we’ve been creating a lot of documents based on our experiences to help explain that this is how to do things, this is the structure. We didn’t have this structure for ourselves and we know how confusing it is for new interns. We’ve been trying to figure out the documents to help new interns write effectively and limit their confusion. We also found that we were trying to compile other programs that were helpful for interns in general. Because this is a virtual internship we don’t see each other’s faces. We interact with each other on slack which is not a very close connection. Over the summer Jewel and I planned this thing that we are calling “Office Hours.” Once a month on a Saturday we hold a virtual meeting and we basically tell interns come by and come hang out with us. We highlighted our first session last month. We had 8 interns and ourselves and we just introduced ourselves and learned where everyone is from. We also had everyone asking questions about onboarding and mock VODs. We are planning on having another office session like that for next Saturday and I hope a lot of people will attend. We have since onboarded more interns and, as others mentioned in their feedback, it’ll be much more clear in what the expectations are for how they should go about things.
MH: So you’ve only been in this co-head position for a few months. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve discovered about your leadership style?
SC: I’ve discovered that I am really good at leading actually. I’ve never really done this before where it’s been me who is overseeing things with a partner and making sure that people are doing their job efficiently. Second, I learned that it is really important to track everything. Every DH is in charge of tracking metrics for each person, which I’ve never done. We track everything, whether people have turned in reports on time. We track whether they turned in enough hours and we can see how many hours they’ve done over the course of an internship. I’ve never understood how important metrics are until I started working in this position. Metrics were metrics to me. But then I started working with it and now I see this is actually going to be important, especially when we start coming up with our yearly reports. We have to give all the total amounts of progress that our department has made and our metrics are important for that.
I have also discovered that I tend to be pretty adaptable. Like I said, I have been trying to create documents with Jewel that explain how to do things because in my experience I felt like I didn’t get that kind of help. So when people say repeatedly they don’t know how to do this, or this process is confusing Jewel and I get together and we try to create a document. Or maybe we will address it on slack so people will understand what they are going to do or what needs to be done. I try to be adaptable based on what I hear or see. There is going to be less structure than what you would get in a face to face internship, but that doesn;t mean we are not here. One of the things that I am trying to emphasize to our interns is that I am here. They can ask me questions if they need to. Even if they email us, or you message me on slack I always try to get back to you with an answer. So even though I am not going to be physically accessible, I am accessible virtually. I think that’s something all DHs need to emphasize because, for new interns especially, this experience can be confusing. This year’s type of onboarding was new and people had different experiences. The ability to be accessible is super important for a DH.
MH: As a second year intern you offer a different perspective. Looking back, which writing projects stand out to you, and why?
SC: I wrote about this actually for one of our pilot projects. Over the summer Dom came out with this idea for DME Intern blog posts which were going to appear on the DME website and hopefully will soon. They’re supposed to give the intern experience ranging from what it was like writing VODs, how HR interns work, etc. What I wrote about for that was what it was like working for special projects. How I got into special projects was kind of interesting. The one thing about Veteran of the Day is that sometimes they can get pretty long, or they can be interesting. This one person I wrote about service consistently in the Air Force from WWII up until the 1970s. He was a major test pilot, so he test piloted planes and civilian aircraft.
Eventually I was told that it was too long for a VOD, but I could turn it into an AVS for special projects. I said sure. So I’ve been working with Special Projects ever since, because around half the VODs I worked on became special projects or I volunteered for some. I think those projects stand out the most because VODs should be 300-500 words minimum. We are only supposed to start about their service, which is less personal than an AVS. An AVS you can talk about specific experiences. For example, I talked about one woman who had to leave he US Naval Academy because of health issues and was outed for her sexuality but then she later served during the Iraq War. Those are things that could not be talked about in a VOD because you are supposed to just give an outline of their service. In an AVS you get attention to detail. Her story about leaving but then coming back and serving was really compelling and is the kind of detail only an AVS can bring out.
MH: Can you talk about the process of establishing a new project from the ground up until publication?
SC: I haven’t had that full experience yet. I guess what I can talk about is the DME blog posts because that is in the process of being established. In the summer of this year Dom decided that they wanted to try and incorporate intern feedback onto the website. People who come to visit the website can look at the intern experience and read about what it’s like to work in podcasting, for example. Or find out what it’s like when you write an AVS for the first time. When we got that out Jewel and I had to understand what that was because we’d never written those before and we had no idea what they were asking for. So we first decided, ok, what we’re going to do is join in. She and I wrote blog posts for the DME. They’re waiting to be published but we think that was a good idea because it got us familiar with the requirements of the DME blog posts. It also allowed us to be able to be confident enough, even if people write something different from what we wrote, we still know what is needed.
We also asked our ELT at the time, can we have our interns interview people from other departments. Even though we are trying to get the experiences out from social media or analytics, they might not be able to write that for themselves because they aren’t going to exactly know the DME writing style. So we wanted our interns to interview people from other departments and write down the experiences for them. And they said it was a good idea. So we had people go out and advertise in departments and find out who would want to talk about their experiences. Even though this internship is huge, the priority goes to writing or podcasts. We don’t hear much about accessibility or HR, and these are important functions of the DME. We could not get our onboarding done without HR. For people who can’t access websites in the normal way because of physical disabilities or traumatic experiences, accessibility is there to help them. We want to get people aware of the types of jobs available here and the work they do.
Again, this project is in the process of being completed. We have had a lot of people write for the DME interns blog post but we are working on how to get them published on the website. It was going to be our department initially but it looks like we are going to get a team from Web Development. That project has been an interesting experience in figuring out how it was going to work and how we are still trying to figure it out.
MH: What are some of the challenges of managing a team virtually and collaborating with other teams?
SC: So, one of the things I found in general is that I am not sure how many of the other teams are aware of the requirements we have. I ran into this when I was an intern too. When I was working as a writer I would write things a certain way. An editor would comment, “Why is this here?” I would say “This is in the template we were given. Do you not have it?” and it turned out most editors did not have the template or they didn’t have access. Making sure that everyone is aware of the requirements we have, as well as us being sure to be aware of their requirements has been a slight issue. So far we have had no issues with any departments on requirements, this was when I was an intern.
The other problem is making sure that everyone understands certain things — especially currently while everyone is working largely on Mock VOD training. A lot of interns have been mentioning that they are worried about getting 10 hours done. We have been trying to tell them repeatedly that the 10 hour rule does not apply to Mock VOD training because you don’t have enough work. So making sure that people understand things and we try to emphasize it as much as possible. I think people are starting to understand now what the 10 hour rule is not in effect yet.
The other one we have had is getting people to understand basic aspects of starting a card. I had to remind people repeatedly to add themselves to a card and claim their rules. They’re just starting out, yes, but if you don’t do those basic things you will not find the card later and it is hard for us to tell if you are working on it. That’s one thing that I can’t emphasize as much.
Another is understanding circumstances. Sometimes we don’t see people active for a period of time or they don’t reach out to us or tell us. That’s an issue normally, but also because of COVID. People have had to drop off because their family members were sick or they have to take care of things. We have been trying to emphasize that COVID is a thing right now and causing chaos for a lot of people but we would really prefer that as soon as possible you let us know that is happening or you need time off. Or if you turn in a report it won’t have a ton of metrics. But we’re also trying to emphasize that is ok. We just want our interns to keep us updated because otherwise we get concerned and may mark them down as having done nothing without knowing the reason. Those are the main challenges.
MH: Yeah it sounds like the DME blog posts will help a lot with the cross-department communications and understanding what everyone’s responsibilities are. You mentioned your past internship at the Folger. Can you talk about how that compares to your virtual internship and leadership responsibilities here?
SC: So in 2017 I found out about the Folger internship from my school. The Folger Shakespeare Library is located in Washington DC right near the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. It is home to the largest collection of Shakespeare materials in the world, and that is including Stratford-upon-Avon in England and London so it is really neat to know that we have a collection of Shakespeare and Medieval-Renaissance English materials actually that close to us. What I did for them was work in an internship mainly transferring and transcribing videos from their video archives. The one thing that Folger also does is record the events that they do so they have a Youtube channel where they post videos of teachers talking about what it’s like to teach African American students. Or they have snippets of plays that they perform regularly because they do perform. They create their own spin on them like they’ll set the tempest in the 1940s. They record these experiences and post them on youtube.
My job was to archive all this stuff, explain what it was, how long it was going to run for, and who might find it relevant. But then over the summer they asked me to stay and work for the teacher’s academy, which they hold every summer. Teachers come from all over the country to learn about Shakespeare plays at the Folger for a week and take it back to teach Shakespeare in ways that they may not have thought about before. What was different about that internship compared to this one was largely the commuting. So like I said the library is located in DC so what I had to do was I commuted everyday between Fairfax, VA (where George Mason is located) to Washington DC and I did not drive into DC because I would’ve been late everyday. I drove to Arlington and took the metro in and back.
When I started working for the summer academy I started commuting by the bus and metro. So largely the difference between this and that internship is commuting and physically being there. I was on the Folger Shakespeare Library premises everyday from February to July 2017. Being there made a difference because I could go to the person next to me and say “Hey I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be doing here, can you help me?” With this internship I do have to reach out on slack or email my ELT.
The other difference is that I am doing more with this internship than I did with that one. That internship again I was largely just transcribing videos. Sometimes I could help with other projects like they asked me to help with features on their teaching website which was beta at the time and they would ask me to help figure out if it would work. That was more towards the Summer Academy portion of my job. At this internship I had the option of doing any project as long as I could write it. So once I did VODs for a while I saw that I could do Vet Resources so I started doing those. Then I expanded into special projects and reddit so that was always there. I could write for any of them as long as I did it well and was able to follow the requirements set out for me.
In the Folger I wasn’t able to expand my work very much beyond the department I was given. That was a downside, but at the same time they asked me to do a specific job and that’s what I was doing. This internship I have been able to work on many different projects and I actually could have done others because moonlighting on Slack advertises relationships and opportunities with other departments and I didn’t know until last spring.
MH: So taking that freedom of work into consideration, looking ahead at the coming internship year which writing projects are you excited for and which hypothetical projects do you want the writing project to take on?
SC: There are these projects for example. This podcast we are doing right now would have been awesome last year if I had been able to do it. Obviously my experience would have been different but this is something that allows us to be able to see what other departments do which is neat. As I said the DME Interns blog post is doing that too but this is writing form while this is someone hearing my voice. They’re hearing it, possibly, from a different part of the country and be like “This was her in Virginia. Maybe I can do it in Utah.” It’s neat that we work with podcasts in this way.
Actually, that new podcast that is going to be about Native Americans that some of our writing interns will write that is really neat. It’s true that Native Americans service is actually less noticed than African Americans or Latino experience. Our writers working on podcasts are neat because not only are they only going to do this type of experience but they will also write for podcasting which is becoming a lot more common nowadays. I’m excited that there will be new opportunities for them that may not have been there for myself. Especially because that gets them the experience of working with other departments and understanding what it’s like for them.
Currently what I am most excited about are the office hours sessions that Jewel and I are hosting. This is something that we hope will let interns feel as though they are connected with us more. Again on Slack you are only able to interact with people as much as you want. But when you join a zoom meeting — which is how we are hosting these — you actually see everyone’s faces and ask them in their time about their experience. We’ve been trying to hold these at the end of every month so a lot more people are finishing up mock VOD training and can say that they know what it is like to work on official work.
MH: So you’ve been working with the VA for almost a year and a half now. What would you say is the single biggest change since you started as an intern?
SC: The single biggest change so far is one that we decided over the summer. That is that you can’t do Special Projects immediately. When I first started out as a writing intern there was no rule about writing Special Projects. Obviously I wasn’t going to try doing it because I had no idea what special projects was, but there was no number needed or required for interns to be able to write special projects or there wasn’t a training session required. You could just start it whenever. Or if you are like me and your VOD got turned into an AVS, you may fall into that work.
This year we decide we want people to write a certain number of final VOD, Vet Resources, or any other projects before they qualify to do special project training. As I mentioned AVS require a certain level of detail and comfortableness with basic VOD requirements such as formality of tone, knowing how to cite sources, stuff like that. We decided back in July that we will require new interns to have at least 12 final drafts of any writing projects before they can qualify for Special Projects training. However we had to change the rules based on that.
We originally started off with 4 veteran people who remained with us for fall. 2 of them became leaders so 1 of them was Special Projects Co-DH. The other became the Vet Newsletter Division Officer. One of them had to leave and the over decided that he had to leave as well. We decided we had to reduce the number of projects from 12 to 5 to give Special Projects people to work with but also so we DHs still feel comfortable that they are ready to do it.
We originally thought about waving the requirements completely but I was thinking that probably wouldn’t be a good idea because I wouldn’t give someone who just finished Mock VOD training and is ready for official work “here’s a special project. Go ahead and start off with it.” Even with a template you have to show that you understand. If you can do a basic VOD a couple times, you can probably do a special project but that’s something that we have had to adjust ourselves based on.
MH: So as a Co-Head, what is a personal or department goal that you have for the end of the internship year?
SC: By the end of the year I want someone to take my place effectively. So when I was interviewing someone for the DME Interns blog post the Accessibility ELT said that he was putting together a how-to guide for future leaders. I was thinking that’s a really good idea because when I became a DH the former DH trained us in but at the same time she wasn’t able to give us super specific information on how specific processes work: the leadership structure for example. That wasn’t clear until July, and we started in June. So that interview got me thinking that by the end of this internship I want to have something for future DHs. I want them to be able to look at the item and say “I know what they want us to do. If I have a specific question I can move on.”
Jewel and I agree that we want a how-to guide for future DHs on how to do basic things like office hours. That’s something we hope people do when we go. Even if they don’t we still want them to know why we did it, how we did it, and what the benefit is. We also want them to know how we did onboarding. Or how to track metrics properly so we don’t get confused and people know what to put into their reports. That’s something I want done by the end of the year because I’m not sure if I’m staying again. You can only stay in this position if you are still a student and based on the current COVID situation I don’t know when I am graduating but I don’t think I will stay next year. If someone is going to take my place I want them to feel comfortable and have guidance that I didn’t have when I took this role.
MH: So when this internship is over, how do you see your engagement with veteran communities in the future?
SC: Well, I was already somewhat connected to the veteran community based on my current research. I was writing about my grandfather who served in the army during WWII in the Philippines and the veteran’s issues around that. What got me interested about this is working with veteran history as an academic source. WWII veterans is one of the many groups out there that people can help expand more on. One of the AVS that came out recently was about a man who served during WWII and was very quiet about his experiences. Then he found out that less than 6% of WWII veterans are alive and he realized he wants to talk about what happened to him.
Since then he has tried to travel around the country and his area and talk about his experience as much as possible. I want to do something like that. I want to maybe work with veterans in the future to make sure their experiences are recorded. There are plenty of projects out there that are dealing with that. For example, VODs, a lot of them come from the Veteran’s History Project with the Library of Congress where they interview veterans from WWII up to now. I maybe might want to go into a more specialized group of veterans because their stories are less talked about. I might go with LGBTQ veterans, or take a hint from the podcast and look into the stories of their communities.
There’s a lot of people out there who’s stories want to be told and haven’t been told for whatever reason. As a history major I think it’s important that I contribute and help get those stories out there in some way. Especially based on what I learned from this internship, where everyone does something different in the Armed Forces, and people need to know that. The Army is one thing but there’s also the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and all of them do different jobs. It is equally important.
MH: Thank you so much for talking to me today Sarah! Is there anything else you might want to talk about before we go?
SC: I would say for people who might be interested in doing a DH position, go for it! This is something for your resume for one thing, but you can also learn what it is like working at the other end. So when I was a writing intern I didn’t have much connection with our DH. Jewel didn’t actually know who our’s were until the last few months of our internship. One thing I have learned about working in the DH position is expanding the outreach of what I do. Trying to make sure people know who to go to if they have a question in our department. Trying to anticipate intern needs. Trying to make sure that I am also on top of things when my ELT asks for “the output for the week of this person” I say “yes I can. I also know this person is doing great, maybe we should get a letter of recommendation for them.”
This is a leadership position which is a really good way of dipping your toes into that idea of working and managing people. It’s not something to be afraid of. It is something that you can show people you can be good at. It is also something that you can show other interns that you understand and empathize with them. Because this internship is virtual we can’t connect with people easily. Showing people your leader cares and is on top of things and you are able to give them a clear answer to a problem is something that shows you want them to have a good experience. I hope I can contribute to them having a good experience for the upcoming year.
SM: Thank you for tuning in to the DME intern podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!