When Shaina Watrous ’14 interned with Legal Services of New Jersey in the summer after her freshman year at Princeton, she didn’t know it would be the start of a successful career in public-service law.
Sponsored by the Princeton Internships in Civic Service (PICS), Watrous worked with a team that referred low-income hospital patients to legal services. In the years after, she co-founded Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR) at Princeton, attended law school, and became a public defender for appellants.
The PICS internship “was my first exposure to poverty law,” Watrous told PAW. “When I realized this was what I wanted to do, I was able to build on that the following year, and then show law schools that the first thing I did in college was to work at a legal-services organization.”
Watrous’ story is one among more than 1,500 from interns who have participated in PICS since its beginnings in 1996. The PICS program was founded by alumni in the Class of 1969 as an experiment — a “challenge,” according to Chuck Freyer ’69, a longtime chair of the PICS board.
“We were challenged by the Project 55 people to take some of our memorial-fund money and do something constructive … to make a difference,” Freyer said. “We started at zero interns in 1996, and built it up to 200 by the time of our 50th reunion [in 2019].”
The program has expanded significantly in the last decade, largely due to extensive alumni efforts. Alumni engage with PICS in several ways, Freyer said: They help source internships, provide funding, and serve as “alumni partners” who mentor students interning through the program.
The PICS program was founded by alumni in the Class of 1969 as an experiment — a “challenge,” according to Chuck Freyer ’69.
Jeri Schaefer, the program’s executive director from 2011 to 2020, oversaw a targeted fundraising mission that helped expand the program’s donor base, internship range, and presence on campus.
“When alumni heard about PICS, and what they were doing — we were able to capture students’ stories, whether through something a student wrote or through their summer project videos — it really inspired [them],” she said. “That was the backbone behind this tremendous growth.”
Originally a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, PICS is now run by Princeton’s Pace Center for Civic Engagement.
“We’re getting older,” Freyer said of the founding class. “I think we all felt that we had proved the concept … and it was now time to give it a permanent home in the Pace Center, but retain the alumni component of the program.”
Kaja Darien ’21 told PAW about her own PICS experience, which took place in 2020. Darien worked at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia PolicyLab, where her interest in studying infectious diseases led her to participate in research on preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.
“The doctor that I worked with while I was interning with the research team actually connected me with other doctors in the field I was interested in,” Darien said. “She also helped with my senior thesis.”
Darien is now completing a prehealth program at the University of Pennsylvania while continuing work with the research team that she joined at the PolicyLab. This is true of many past PICS interns, according to Schaefer, who said that many go on to work full time at nonprofits they interned with, or start new organizations.
Of course, not all PICS students end up in civic-service careers, Freyer told PAW. But even for those who choose other paths, he encourages all possible forms of service.
“What we hope is that this experience will encourage them to play a role in a nonprofit, to be on a board, to be a volunteer, a donor, along with whatever career they’re pursuing,” he said. “Few will go into nonprofit careers — most won’t — but if they do, they have picked up the rewards that can be achieved by working in the nonprofit sector through their PICS internship.”
And for those who did find a meaningful career in public service, many have PICS to thank.
“Having had this experience definitely opened doors,” Watrous said, “that brought me to where I am today.”