Back in September, I took a Stanford class on regional politics in Silicon Valley with President Hancock (Russ, as I know him). Within weeks, I was transfixed by the intricate, beautiful, hot mess that is the Valley. It was the only class of mine that allowed me to engage directly with agents in the real world—city council members, Google workers, and local activists—and learn about their issues in ways much more compelling than the internet and textbooks can offer.
The class, taken in the autumn quarter of my first year, was also a great way for me to realize my place in the region as a Stanford student. When I contacted leaders in influential spheres for a class project, they would treat me with respect and intrigue immediately after hearing the name of my institution. Months ago, I would have been a random teenager who could easily be brushed off, but Stanford gave me respect and recognition. As good as that felt, I also realized that I was observing and reporting these regional, people’s issues from a remote ivory tower that I had just moved to. I loved what I had seen so far, but it would take more time and investment to truly understand and become a part of this remarkable environment where I would be spending the next four years of my life (if not more).
So, when Russ invited my classmates and me to apply for the Benest Fellowship at Joint Venture, I was immediately interested. The fellowship was advertised as a more immersive and hands-on version of this already immersive and hands-on class, and it lingered in my mind for the rest of the school year. I made plans to take a light summer course-load at Stanford, riding the Caltrain to the San Jose office a few times each week. I daydreamed about the data I might collect, the events I might attend, the people I might meet, and the solutions I might contribute to. I imagined calm and sunny morning train rides, bustling afternoons in the capital of Silicon Valley, and peaceful sunsets over Stanford’s sandstone arches. 2020 was going to be an active summer of living and learning in the Valley, of further engagement with the community around my school.
Just as I was finishing up the draft of my application, COVID hit the Bay Area. As cases trickled in, Stanford began exercising precautions and sending students home. Many of my friends lamented the loss of their summer plans as internships and other opportunities were canceled. Concerned, I called Russ to ask if the fellowship would still be offered and if Joint Venture would still be doing business. He exuberantly responded that the fellowship was still up (though in a remote format), I was encouraged to apply, and that Joint Venture was busier than ever. The virus had shut many things down, but a think tank and incubation space for regional issues would be one of the last to go. Interested in this new possibility, I sent in my application and flew home to Denver, where I’ve spent the last three months.
I settled in back home, and after an incredibly slow month of lockdown and online classes, I was appointed to the fellowship. At the start of the summer, Russ began introducing me to the Joint Venture team through a series of Zoom meetings. I expressed my interests in data science and economics, and was quickly assigned related projects that had come to the organization in the age of COVID.
With the fellowship built to be mostly remote, my work actually wasn’t drastically different from what I had imagined: though I wasn’t riding into San Jose for meetings and seminars, I was still meeting interesting people in fields I want to work in and (less excitingly) doing grunt work to move projects along. The city budgets, spreadsheets, and Joint Venture PR I was hired to work with were all still waiting for me behind my computer screen. Like everything else in my life, the fellowship had found a way to adapt to the pandemic. Sure, just as online learning doesn’t bring the same experience and engagement as its in-person counterpart, this fellowship is probably hindered more than helped by its remote nature. But the experience of working to solve regional issues and work with regional leaders is still present for 2020 Benest fellows, and I’m largely optimistic for the summer to come.
About the Author
Lukas Lopez-Jensen is one of Joint Venture's 2020-2021 Benest Fellows.