Montezuma-Cortez High School student Danita Miles was one of 23 teens from Southwest Colorado to land an internship through the Pinhead Institute this year.
The internship program was founded in 2003, but its executive director, Sarah Holbrooke, said staff have only been actively courting applicants from the Cortez area for three years. Students who are accepted into the program spend six to 10 weeks working with professional researchers in their fields of interest at universities all over the world.
Danita Miles’ internship was at an aquarium in Santa Barbara, California, called REEF (Research, Education and Experience Facility) working with her supervisor, Scott Simon and colleagues.
The Pinhead Institute pays for all student expenses during that time, plus a travel stipend, with funds from donations and grants.
“Pinhead also allowed us opportunities while we were on the internship,” Miles said. “They got me a seat on this boat trip off the Channel Islands off the coast, and Pinhead paid for everything.”
Although many of the students who land the internship have high GPAs, Holbrooke said it’s more important for them to be “intellectually curious.” She said she asks applicants about their reading habits and experience in the field where they’re applying.
“You have to be someone who appreciates learning things, outside of what the teachers are telling you to do,” Holbrooke said.
Miles had been looking for internships to improve her chances of getting into a good college with a scholarship when she found Pinhead.
“Tammi Slagle works really close with men and a couple people from the tribe, and she got me in touch with Sarah Holbrook,” Miles said. “We went to the presentation night, and I filled out the application. You don’t have to be at the top of your class. You just had to be driven, show dedication and that you could be flexible.”
Miles was a participant in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota.
“I wanted to go to see what makes up water, not just study water but see what water is itself,” Miles said. “They couldn’t get me into exactly that, but they got me into marine biology. One thing that Pinhead wants you to do is be open to opportunities, and I honestly didn’t think I was going to like marine biology at all, but then once I got down there it was actually really fun.”
At 17 years old, Miles is no stranger to travel – she is originally from South Dakota and travels there at least three months per year – but she had some trouble adjusting to life on her own.
“I think the only hard part about it was physically being alone,” Miles said. “I am a very independent person, I take care of myself in every single way, but I had never fully been by myself. But I got used to it after the first week.”
Past Pinhead interns have gone on to prestigious universities like Stanford and Harvard, and many are working in the fields where they interned. Holbrooke said the internship experience gives many students clarity about what they want to do with their lives.
“It’s a great feeling of success that they’ve been able to complete something in six weeks, that they started out not knowing very much and they ended knowing a lot,” she said. “And sometimes that includes knowing that they actually don’t want to go into that field.”
She cited an example of a student who went through a veterinary internship and ended up going to nursing school. But Holbrooke said the internship increases most students’ excitement about their field. It also helps to practice living away from their families in an academic environment before they go to college, she said.
Miles began the program interested in water, but said she is aiming for a degree in psychology. She also received high school credit through the program.