Summer on the Cuyahoga is on a mission to attract more college grads to Cleveland

Earlier this month, Kohrman Jackson & Krantz managing partner Jon Pinney gave a highly charged talk at the City Club in which he made numerous points stressing the need to ramp up Cleveland’s economic development efforts—among them that cities like Columbus and Philadelphia have targeted programs for attracting and retaining talent, while Cleveland has no such initiative in place.

Eric McGarvey has some news for him: there is a program that does exactly that, and it’s been around since 2003. The program is called Summer on the Cuyahoga, and so far, it’s prompted more than 160 college students to call Cleveland home.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that for 15 years we’ve been perfecting this model,” says McGarvey, who is SOTC’s newly minted executive director—having taken over in December 2017. “We’ve seen great success from that in terms of those who've moved to Cleveland because of the program, as well as a growing alumni network.”

Initially known as "Bulldogs on the Cuyahoga," the program was founded as a summer internship program for Yale students, but has since grown to include seven schools including Case Western Reserve, Colgate, Cornell, Denison, Ohio Wesleyan, Smith, and University of Chicago. (Next year, Oberlin will join the fold as well.)

This year, 70 students are on board for the 10-week program, hailing from 17 states and six foreign countries (Abu Dhabi, Canada, China, Nepal, India, and Vietnam). All internships are full-time and paid, with students interning at over 30 Northeast Ohio companies including the Cleveland Museum of Art, BioEnterprise, FlashStarts, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Stipends range from $1,500 to $4,000, while hourly rates range from $10 to $17 per hour.

“It’s really important to us that all of our students are in meaningful internships—not just getting coffee and copies, but getting something out of it,” says McGarvey. “The same goes for employers; we want to make sure they’re getting great candidates who will pour their hearts into it. That’s the beauty of our [application] portal, because it makes that matching process very smooth.”

Along with connecting students to paid opportunities, the program is geared at helping them explore Cleveland. The schedule is packed with group excursions like city bike rides, tours of West Side Market and Mitchell’s Ice Cream, festivals such as Larchmere Porchfest, scavenger hunts, and Indians games. Networking and professional development opportunities are also on the itinerary.

Students are also paired with a local “alumni host,” who acts as an extra layer of support throughout the summer. “Along with acting as a mentor, the host might pick up the student from the airport, take them on a Target or Walmart run, have them over for dinner,” explains McGarvey, adding that alumni can also open up their homes to students whose internships exceed the duration of SOTC. (Students reside in CSU’s Fenn Tower during the program.)

According to McGarvey, SOTC has gained momentum in recent years in terms of talent retention, with 40 students from the 2015 and 2016 cohorts choosing to move to Cleveland. (Data from 2017 is not yet available.) “Just within the last few years, we’re seeing a lot of traction,” says McGarvey. “It’s also evident in that there are more students registering to our portal and applying.”

McGarvey is hoping numbers like these will continue to get the city—and SOTC—noticed. (Are you listening, Jon Pinney?)

“When [Pinney] spoke about talent, that stuck a chord with us, as we feel we’ve done a lot with [facilitating] retention and creating ambassadors for Cleveland all over the country,” says McGarvey. “Students have one idea coming in, as they may have heard of challenges Cleveland faces with crime and economic development. But somewhere along the way, they get hooked and fall in love with this city.”


Read more articles by Jen Jones Donatelli.

As an enthusiastic CLE-vangelist, Jen Jones Donatelli enjoys diving headfirst into her work with FreshWater Cleveland. Upon moving back to Cleveland after 16 years in Los Angeles, Jen served as FreshWater's managing editor for two years (2017-2019) and continues her work with the publication as a contributing editor and host of the FreshFaces podcast. When not typing the day away at her laptop, she teaches writing and creativity classes through her small business Creative Groove, as well as Literary Cleveland, Cleveland State University, and more. Jen is a proud graduate of Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.