Two years after launching a program to increase experiential learning, University of Maine at Farmington officials say student internships have tripled.

“And that’s not a static figure. We are always working with new partners and new students,” program director Celeste Branham said.

Branham, vice president of student and community services, said the goal of the partnership to grow university-community relations and get students involved in experiential learning.

“For students, it’s a way for them to test career interests, to network and to gain skills,” she said.

Area nonprofits and businesses are evaluated and then approved into the UMF’s list of partner organizations that it sends students to for hands-on learning.

The program for now focuses on student internships, but also is incrementally phasing in partnership organizations for undergraduate research, service learning, volunteering and leadership education and training.

Before the partnership was created, students still interned and some majors required interning; but the quality of and requirements for internships varied, Branham said.

One reason for centralizing the way UMF students intern in the community, Branham said, is make sure students are treated fairly and gain job skills from their experience.

Elsewhere, college students have made national news in the last two years for arguing they were taken advantage of through unpaid internships that violated federal labor laws.

The U.S. Department of Labor requires that unpaid internships at for-profit businesses be primarily educational opportunities “similar to training that would be given in a vocational school,” and not used by companies to replace paid labor.

Different unpaid interns have filed class-action lawsuits demanding back pay for unpaid internships. Targets of lawsuits against former employers include Hearst Magazines and Conde Nast.

“We haven’t had any issues of controversy here,” said Branham, who has followed the developments in the news, “but it is something worth noting and watching.”

Branham said UMF’s program has taken measures to ensure all internships in their program are educational, and to get student’s compensation for their work.

At their program, they screen businesses prior to admitting them as partner organizations with the school, and the student and partner sign to contracts so they are accountable.

“We don’t want the students to just be making copies or getting coffee,” she said.

University staff members visit and monitor the program, and so far, she said, they’ve had no problems with partners and retained 100 percent of programs they’re working with.

The university also offers $1,200 stipends through Bangor Savings Bank for some students so they can afford to work at the companies, program grant writer Lorraine Pratt said.

“If we didn’t have the stipends, a lot of our students just wouldn’t be able to do it,” Pratt said.

Branham said it is challenging to find paid internships, because many of the students are partnered with small businesses or nonprofits that would like to teach a student but don’t have room in the budget for pay.

Because of this, she said, program staff members also are working with organizations on cost-sharing agreements, through which the university splits the cost of compensating the intern with the partner.

“They might agree to pay so much per hour or pay the first few weeks of the internship,” she said.

The university also has systems in place to make sure the student holds up his or her end of the partnership.

The students sign a contract and are briefed prior to the internship on workplace etiquette and expectations, and they are evaluated at the end by their supervisors.

“Our concern is that these placements be mutually beneficial,” Branham said.

One of the group’s partner organizations, United Way of the Tri-Valley Area, has benefited from students in the partnership since the program’s start, said Nancy Teele, United Way volunteer center coordinator.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to tap into these students’ ideas and enthusiasm,” she said.

Teele said the nonprofit takes both student volunteers and interns paid with the partnerships’ $1,200 stipends.

Teele, 54, said she interned as a nontraditional student with United Way five years ago, and the partnership created more consistency than there was for interns in her graduating class.

“There’s a system of reporting, an expectation of quality and a contract with a description of what both sides are expected to do,” she said.

When students volunteer with community groups such as United Way, Branham said, she hopes students come away with more knowledge about a municipality’s needs.

“It gives them a sense of civic responsibility and an understanding of how a community functions,” she said.

UMF senior Hayley Smith-Rose interned at True Oldies 93.5, in Waterville, last summer and has accepted a job in marketing with the Mountain Wireless, the station’s parent company and one of UMF’s partner organizations.

Smith-Rose, of Nashua, N.H., said she was unsure what she specifically wanted to do with her music administration major, and the internship let her test a career in the radio business.

“When you learn, it’s very real-world,” she said.

Smith-Rose, 22, said she interned before at a Boston radio station near her hometown that wasn’t a partner organization with the school.

“The first internship was great and nothing went wrong, thankfully; but with the partnership, you know there’s that accountability,” she said. “It feels safer.”

Smith-Rose continued to work part time as an executive sales coordinator for the station after the internship ended and now has a job offer in sales with Mountain Wireless after graduation.

“It’s nice to be one of the lucky few that have a job,” she said.

Branham said one of the achievements of the program is that it helps students such as Smith-Rose learn that there are jobs in Maine.

“Prior to their participation in the partnership, many students didn’t realize there were options for them in Maine,” she said. “And promoting that is on everybody’s mind.”

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252[email protected]