Emma Polinsky, a rising senior at Boca Ciega High School, has a passion for community service.
That enthusiasm landed Polinsky a spot as a 2020 Bank of America Student Leader, one of four high school students from the Tampa Bay area and one of about 300 nationwide selected to take part in the annual paid internship program.
Polinsky and the three other local students — Michael Barfield Jr., who attends St. Petersburg High School, Elida Villegas from Wimauma and Jordan Jasper from Tampa — are participating in online sessions to learn about the role nonprofits play in the community. They also are talking with local bank executives, community and government leaders about social justice, civil rights and building a more diverse and inclusive society.
Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) launched the student leader program in 2004 and it has served 125 students locally over the years. Historically, the program was an eight-week internship at a local nonprofit, said Ann Shaler, Bank of America Tampa Bay market manager. She called the program the bank’s “long-game investment.”
“We’re investing in these student leaders across the country and we know the payoff comes a few years later, when they get their first job, start a company, go into politics or the non-profit world. It’s an important foundation that we’re committed to,” Shaler said.
The Covid-19 pandemic shifted the way the program operated, but not the goals.
““This year we shifted this program into a virtual program connecting the kids to skill building, leadership development, still connecting them to a not-for-profit. Here in Tampa Bay, it’s Boys & Girls Club of the Suncoast,” Shaler said. “We still felt committed to recognizing these young people for their community achievements and wanted to ensure they still got the experience and programs, as well as a paid summer job.”
Polinsky first heard about the program from her school guidance counselor and felt drawn to it because she is a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, which is Bank of America’s corporate headquarters. She already was a student leader at Boca Ciega High, working with a friend in 2018 to start a club, Students For Our Community, to promote volunteerism at the school.
“We had noticed that there were lots of volunteer opportunities but the student body not taking full advantage of them. We realized there was a bit of a disconnect between what was being offered and the notion of being able to participate. Students felt detached. So we offered a bridge so students could participate more,” Polinsky said.
“I had never started something from the ground up, and it was a battle to learn the leadership and organization skills necessary. Our first year was a little smaller, but the second year we partnered with our principal and hosted a club fair, which our school did not have. By doing that, we reached more students and even helped other clubs and organizations our school, which was great. This year, we held some school-wide events to bring attention to domestic violence and human trafficking, back in February. We held some donations and drives, and we also established a community garden … So we’ve got a lot of projects going on.”
Polinsky had the characteristics sought by a selection committee for the student leaders program, Shaler said. Those traits include the initiative to identify an issue in the community or in their school, to see gaps and to take action, as well as innovation and the ability to create something’s that’s never existed, and a commitment to following it through.
“We hope the [student leaders] curriculum and the experience they get builds and helps them grow foundation they already have and take those skills into the future,” Shaler said.
One of the projects the four local student leaders are working on is a pitch presentation to the Boys & Clubs Club.
“We spoke with the leader of the Boys & Girls Club, Freddy Williams, and they have an idea to partner businesses to students through the Boys & Girls club to give them career-readiness opportunities. How they might go about that is currently unknown, and that’s where we come in. We’re trying to give them some advice that students and leaders in the community feel would be most helpful for students who are looking for jobs,” Polinsky said.
Another highlight was a Zoom call with Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, as part of the program’s “young democracy” curriculum.
Polinsky said participation in the program will pay off when school resumes this fall.
“I think this program will be great to teach me how to bring leadership virtually. Our school has in-person offerings, but a lot of that will be limited. I’m assuming clubs and meetings and student life opportunities are going to switch to more hybrid or online models. So being able to grasp the concept of leadership through this online space will be super helpful and impactful when I take it back to school this fall,” she said.