Best practices: Hillel Connections offers more than just work to draw college students to Birmingham

The University of Alabama served as the pilot university for Birmingham’s Hillel Connections program.

The University of Alabama served as the pilot university for Birmingham’s Hillel Connections program.

Parker Jacobs, a senior at the University of Alabama studying math and finance, has started his job search.

Originally, Chicago, his hometown, and Atlanta were his top two picks for where he’d like to land after graduation. Now, after participating in the Hillel Connections internship program last summer in Birmingham, the Magic City has been added to his shortlist.

“Going into this summer, I can say honestly that I wasn’t expecting to absolutely love it,” Jacobs said. “I saw it as a good opportunity for me to work and to get free housing. I said ‘whatever, I’ll take a chance with it.’ But I absolutely loved it.”

Jacobs was one of seven college students from the University of Alabama chosen to be a part of the pilot year of the Hillel Connections program this past summer. The program connects UA students with Birmingham over an eight-week summer internship, but it goes beyond employment – it connects participating students, who are all Jewish, with a local family and a religious community in hopes of making the Magic City feel more like home rather than just a summer internship destination.

All seven Hillel Connections participants expressed high interest in exploring future job opportunities in Birmingham. According to the Building (It) Together labor analysis report, approximately 14 percent of recent graduates from Auburn and Alabama live in Birmingham, which results in approximately 8,200 new workers per year – a number likely to grow with workforce programs like Hillel Connections and others.

“It was nice to explore a new city,” said Jacobs, who interned at ServisFirst Bank in the commercial lending department. “I had a great time learning about downtown and going to Barons games, and I had a great time working [at ServisFirst]. It was an amazing first real job experience and I couldn’t ask for it to go better than it did.”

Jacobs was connected with a local family, the Bluesteins, who had him over for dinner and let him do laundry at their place, as all Hillel Connections interns stayed in one of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) dormitories downtown.

“They were extremely nice and loving,” he said.

Hillel Connections was started by Dr. Roxanne Travelute and her husband, Dr. Michael Honan, for two reasons – they have college-aged children they want to see come back to Birmingham and they noticed that millennials were losing interactions with religious communities.

With the advent of streaming church services online, many millennials are watching from home rather than becoming a part of a community, losing out on a valuable connection, Travelute said. The organization’s name comes from Hillel, which is the largest Jewish campus organization in the world that works with thousands of college students globally, and the connections Travelute hopes would be made through the program.

“At least 64 percent of students at the University of Alabama are from out of state and don’t know what opportunities are in Birmingham, both from an employer standpoint as well as social, cultural and religious opportunities,” Travelute said.

Interested students fill out an application online that is populated with employers that have agreed to participate. It is a mutual selection process between the student and the employer, with Hillel Connections acting as the bridge to connect the two. This past summer, participants worked at ServisFirst, Morgan Stanley, Collat Jewish Family Services, UAB, Kassouf & Co. and Oral Surgeon Dr. Michael Koslin.

“Our intern [was] an exceptional young professional, and we appreciate the enthusiasm and commitment he put into his role as an intern with our firm,” said Kevin Cook, a CPA and manager at Kassouf & Co.

The Hillel Connections interns toured the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a part of their summer experience in Birmingham.

The Hillel Connections interns toured the Birmingham Civil Rights District as a part of their summer experience in Birmingham.

Housing is provided in UAB dorms, and participants do service and social activities, including attending Barons games as a group and touring the Birmingham Civil Rights District. Each participant is connected with a family that is there for support throughout the summer, with one family member usually working in the same industry as the intern.

“The marvelous thing has been our students from last summer are maintaining the connection with the local family,” Travelute said. “For us that is a sign that when they graduate there is a good chance they will at least strongly consider Birmingham as a possibility, because they already have a connection here and have had the summer to really see Birmingham has so many opportunities for millennials.”

Jake Kaplan, a junior at UA studying international studies, connected with the Krell family. He was a frequent visitor at their home over the summer, and he still stays at their house even though his internship at Morgan Stanley is complete.

“We have a stellar relationship. They’re like family, really,” he said. “All adults in Birmingham are such rock stars. Everyone in Birmingham is always so welcoming. I can’t help but be appreciative and want to be a part of it [Birmingham].”

Next summer, Travelute’s goal is to expand Hillel Connections from seven to 20 students, and the program’s long-term goal is to branch out and include Huntsville, Montgomery and Mobile as well. This upcoming summer, students from Auburn University, Birmingham-Southern College and UAB will be invited to apply for Birmingham internships, along with UA students. Eventually, Travelute said she’d like to open the program to any Jewish student that would like to apply, even if they are from out of state.

“We want to build the workforce in Birmingham and want to do it in a way that not only recruits the best students, but retains them,” she said. “I think this program will do both.”