How My Internship at BDT Has Inspired My Career Path

| By: Safaya Smallwood, Policy Team Intern

Safaya Quote

Growing up in a low-income family, I often felt powerless to improve my family’s situation. I helped my mother apply and reapply for public benefits like SNAP and Medicaid and grew frustrated with the seemingly endless barrage of jargon, paperwork, and hurdles to gaining access to support. The helplessness I felt sparked a drive to improve the public benefits access system and make a real social impact. Now here I am, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore studying political science with a front row seat to driving change through policy thanks to my internship at Benefits Data Trust (BDT). I was moved by BDT’s mission to improve access to public benefits, as it spoke to my own experiences and commitment to ensuring that families enduring economic hardships are afforded the same safety net I grew up with.  

As an intern with the Policy Team, I had the opportunity to help create change that has a direct effect on populations that I am a part of – not only low-income families, but students like me. In the last seven months, I spent hours researching and better understanding SNAP policies for college students, a critical and timely topic as expanded student eligibility and other COVID-19 era policies come to an end. Before the pandemic, fewer than half of about 3.3 million college students likely eligible for the federal food assistance program reported actually receiving the benefit. By better understanding state and county SNAP policies, specific eligibility pathways for students, the impact of pandemic-era changes, and ongoing barriers to accessing SNAP benefits, I learned how to improve access to SNAP for eligible student populations and how we can share that information with partner states for implementation.

I also came to understand how policies are dynamic and rapidly changing to respond to needs. States can be expected to adjust on the fly to federal changes, like the end of the continuous coverage requirement for Medicaid, or the end of increased SNAP value through emergency allotments – two changes resulting from the imminent end of pandemic-era policies. My work on SNAP accessibility for college students reflected this dynamic nature of policy, and I learned not only how to navigate constantly shifting policies, but why the complex work that BDT does is so necessary – when one policy shifts, research like mine can inform us of other policy options that can minimize negative impacts on people receiving assistance.

Working at BDT has deepened my passion for policy change and a career in the nonprofit sector. The unique opportunity to help shape policy and process changes in public assistance that can be implemented by BDT’s partner states has empowered me, enabling me to create the change that I want to see in the world. This internship provided hands-on experience to shape my career path, from developing both quantitative and qualitative analysis skills, to drafting memos, conducting in-depth research, and understanding the role non-profits play in breaking down the barriers for many families like mine to gain access to support.   

Safaya Smallwood is a sophomore studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania. On campus, she is passionate about her work for the MOVE Activist Archive and her studies in postcolonialism, Indigenous Studies, and revolutionary social movements. In her free time, Safaya enjoys making art, clothing, and music, as well as spending time with her puppy and her friends.