Princeternship stories: Michael Zhang ’17, DonorsChoose

This post was written by Michael Zhang after his Princeternship. 

I remember thinking to myself on my morning commute to headquarters that this Princeternship was going to be my first real glimpse of what my future may look like. For a brief train ride, I felt like I was walking into the “real world,” as it occurred to me that I was experiencing what every worker from Long Island experiences on a typical workday, even though the morning felt particularly special to me.

Before arriving at the office, I had no idea what to expect. I had first heard of through a promotion Alexis Ohanian did on his book tour stop at Princeton, where he gave everyone who bought his book a full refund in the form of a gift card. After some research, I learned that is an innovative charity that aims to empower teachers through crowdfunding by letting public school teachers post classroom projects they could not afford and connecting them to potential donors. Our host, Andrew Protain ’08, was generous enough to provide us with free gift codes that allowed us to contribute to a project of our choosing, so that we could get a sense of how their system works.

Zhang Group Photo

Upon arriving at their Manhattan office, Alex Hanley ’18 and I were awestruck by the beautiful design of the office space, which featured enormous blackboards filled with amazing chalk art and samples of donated classroom supplies carefully arranged all around the lobby area, which they call “The Playground.” After Andrew showed us around the office, we discovered that every room had a classroom-appropriate name, such as the “Geography Room” or the “Art Studio.” Little things like this in every aspect of their workplace really showed that everyone was genuinely committed to education and helping students grow. After the tour, Andrew told us about his work at the company as a user researcher, showing us the kind of projects he worked on and gave us a brief overview of our schedule for the day, packed with meetings with employees from every part of the company.

Our first meeting was at 11a.m. with Vlad, a data scientist. He told us about his background, which included a slew of entertaining stories about the various startups he had attempted before coming to, and talked about what being a data scientist entails. He explained to us that data science is all about “translating” data, going from questions to data, as well as data to questions. Having recently taken an interest in data science myself, I found Vlad to be infinitely resourceful about what he thought was the best approach to prepare for a career in data science, in addition to providing a lot of solid advice for college and beyond. Throughout the meeting, Vlad’s refreshing candor really left a strong impression on me, which helped set the tone for the rest of my day, as I discovered candidness to be a universal trait among the people I met at

After that, we grabbed a quick lunch to go and came back to eat at the office with a bunch of employees that were eager to meet us. We learned about the office-wide health challenge everyone was participating in and got to talk casually with a bunch of people we were not able to incorporate into our schedule. Despite being a relatively small company (roughly 70 workers total), I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were quite a few Princeton alums there. This led to an especially interesting set of conversations, as we got to hear a decade’s worth of advice about how to make the best of our time at Princeton. Perhaps the most reassuring takeaway we heard over and over again from people was that work does not get much harder than Princeton—something I try to remind myself as I’m preparing for finals.

Once we were finished eating and talking, we met with Elaine, who gave us a broad overview of how cultivates relationships with partners and develops as a business. She also emphasized the importance of staying innovative as a nonprofit, as staying above trends is a requirement for survival. Next, we met with Risa, who explained to us what “customer relations” really means and how it is the backbone of any company that services people. After that, we met with Diana, who went over with us what the recruiting and hiring process is like, demystifying a lot of what goes on behind-the-scenes after people send in applications and participate in interviews. However, the most important thing I got out of my conversation with Diana was hearing about her transition from a job in finance to She was incredibly honest about the factors that attracted her to her current job and discussed the different cultures and lifestyles she had to experience for her to reach a conclusion about what kind of work she really wanted to be involved in. Like many college students, I often worry about not knowing what exactly it is that I want to do after college, but talking to Diana really helped relieve some of those qualms.

The next meeting we had was with Jason ’10, who we had to Skype with because he worked in the West Coast office in San Francisco. We learned about what was different about working on the West Coast team and what it’s like to coordinate between two offices. Jason was also able speak to how his experiences at Princeton carried over to his career, offering a lot of relevant advice about how to figure out what it is you want to pursue. Then, we met with Taylor who described the different components of financial operations within a nonprofit, stressing the need for transparency and precision. Finally, we met with César, the Chief Operating Officer, who walked us step-by-step through his extensive experience through various career paths before ending up at Most memorably, he had us draw a three circle Venn diagram, with the circles representing passion, something you’re good at, and (financial) need. By explaining each possible intersection of these circles and how they corresponded to real-world careers, he taught us an invaluable approach that we can apply to our eventual decisions in choosing career paths.

After individual meetings, we got to sThe Playgroundit in on the Partnerships and Business Development Teams’ mid-year review meeting, where we were able to get a firsthand look at how companies evaluate themselves, set goals, and decide the best course of action to take. Afterwards, we volunteered in Donor Appreciation Land, where thank-you notes from students are processed, packaged, and sent to donors. This extra, personal touch to the process is what makes the experience truly special, as it allows donors to physically see what their contributions go to and form that bit of a connection with their student beneficiaries. Working alongside other volunteers, I couldn’t help but smile when I saw all the cute cards kids make.

At the end of the day, I found part of me wishing that I didn’t have to go home. simply had an indescribably positive and friendly vibe to its office that I had never experienced anywhere else. Every single person I met was so passionate and truly cared about the work they were doing so much that I couldn’t help but be inspired. Before visiting, I was a bit apprehensive about the idea of working for a nonprofit someday; however, in retrospect, I think my apprehension was mostly a product of my ignorance, as after seeing what it’s like firsthand, I think I finally understand the people who say they love going to work every single day. While I’m still a bit unsure about what my future will look like, my day at definitely made me understand how important it is to find a job you love.