Atifa Hoque is a longtime veteran of the DME Internship, spending two years as a social media intern in her first year and executive leadership team intern for social media in her second year. Atifa had originally selected three other internships to apply to before receiving an email from Dom Ramirez, the program head manager of the DME Internship, to join the social media team with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Leadership has changed over the years since Atifa had started the DME Internship in the Summer of 2018, like the new leadership positions that opened up and the large number of new interns that joined in her second year. Atifa was later offered the leadership position of Social Media ELT and said that her new transition involved overseeing and managing metrics, training new interns, signing forms, as well as drafting and scheduling social media posts. 

The VA’s Social Media posts are primarily concerned with reaching out to veterans and their families to provide them with information that can help them in everyday life. The VA’s medical and health care centers offer such help and support to veterans. Atifa said that social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are used to spread Veteran resources and social media posts like the #VeteranOfTheDay posts, Anniversary/Remembrance posts and daily VA Blog Posts.

Atifa has some advice to share for incoming interns: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. And make sure, as an unpaid internship, make sure to see if you can get some credits or some kind of stipends. It will make it a little more worthwhile.”

Use the audio player to listen to Atifa’s full interview, or read the transcript below:


Shannon Moran: The Department of Veterans Affairs does not endorse or officially sanction any entities that may be discussed in this podcast, nor any media products or services they may provide. Hello and welcome to the Department of Veterans Affairs Digital Media Engagement Interns Podcast. This podcast will focus on the experience and work of various interns on the Digital Media Engagement’s team who are working with us as part of the Virtual Student Federal Service internship within the department of Veteran’s Affairs. This podcast is two interns having a conversation about their experiences in order to highlight the work, as well as encourage application to this program and friendship amongst the interns. So please join us as we highlight and get to know some of the many interns that are part of our program. Thank you for listening!

Mercedes Hesselroth: Hi, so if you could start by introducing yourself, and what your role was when you were an intern.

Atifa Hoque: Ok, so my name is Atifa Hoque.  I’m a recent graduate from Brooklyn College.  I was a social media intern my first year with the DME. And then, my second year, I was an Executive Leadership Team intern for social media.  

MH: So you have a pretty different perspective from the other interns that we’ve spoken to because you’ve actually completed two years of the internship. Can you explain, way back in the summer of 2018, what drew you to this internship, and why you wanted to serve on the social media team.  

AH: I originally had selected, I believe, three other non-VA roles to be with VSFS.  But I wasn’t selected.  And then, I got an email from Dom, the program head manager, to join the social media team because I had applied to other social media positions, but just not with the VA.  I was like, you know what, I might as well take it, and it just started from there.   

MH: In your time at the internship, from 2018 to 2020, what have been the most significant changes you’ve witnessed over your time with the DME team?

AH: I would say the leadership changed a lot.  My first year, we only had department heads, division officers, and Dom.  My second year, the ELT (Executive Leadership Team) was put in, so that was a huge change, as well as just the sheer number of people, number of interns, in the internship.  We were around maybe 50-ish, less than 100 in my first year, and then we were over like 150 my second year.  So those have been pretty big changes, but I’m not complaining.  They were pretty good, I think, to implement.

MH: You mentioned the establishment of the Executive Leadership Team and you actually served on that team.  So can you explain a bit about what the responsibilities of the ELTs are, and how you got that position?

AH: Yeah, so they knew I was staying on, and they just asked me, Jennifer the Executive Officer intern, she messaged me with my Department Head at the time, Emily.  They were like, you are staying on, why don’t you consider taking on this leadership position?  I was very hesitant, I’ve never been in a big position like that before.  But they were confident that I can do it, and I was like, I think I can do it as well.  With their help, they would support me, make sure that I was able to transition pretty well into the leadership.  I mean, it was very new so everyone was kind of just working together, the ELTs.  So many of us weren’t in leadership positions prior to joining ELT.  As an ELT, we mostly did a lot of overseeing and managing metrics.  Making sure that the interns were trained properly, they knew what they were doing.  Making sure that any concerns were addressed, any forms that were required for Dom to sign, would get there on time, so they can get credited, or they can get stipends, things like that.  As well as any other general intern duties, for me social media, I will still be drafting and scheduling like a regular social media intern.  

MH: So can you talk about what a typical week in the internship was like? There’s ten hours required from every intern, what would you typically be doing, how would you structure your time?

AH: So, I would usually go on mid-afternoons like around three or four, and I would just check over to see the other intern works, see what they did, if they needed any help, if they’d made any mistakes I’d catch it before it would get scheduled.  I would spend at least a good maybe hour or two doing that towards the end of the day.  Throughout the day I would be on Slack, just participate in whatever conversations there are, just for general internship friendships and good networking, that kind of stuff.  However, usually on the weekends is when I would sit down, and do all of the metrics for that week.  Usually that would be recording how many intern Instagram posts were made, intern Facebook posts, intern Twitter posts, I would record that, and I would also record the weekly hours that each intern would do.  They would submit their weekly report, I would record that, and then I would total how many intern work hours per team was done.  And that was usually done either on a Sunday, Sunday evening, or at the latest by Monday.  And I would answer whatever questions came up in the weekly reports as well if the department heads didn’t catch it already.  

MH: So when you’re keeping in mind, the writing of these social media posts, who are you trying to reach?  Is it the veterans themselves, veteran families, or people who are not familiar with veterans at all? 

AH: The first two primarily, veterans and their families, so that they know, one – what the VA offers and is still offering, and two – to show what the VA is currently doing.  We post a lot about what certain VA medical centers, what certain VA healthcare centers do, just to show a community feel, to see what people are doing, what volunteers are doing to help veterans, just a very good feel.  I guess I would say, maybe half the content is that feel good kind of thing, showcasing what veterans say at a facility are doing, or a new service being implemented.  And the other half would be actual services that the VA offers like what to do about their benefits, what to do about scheduling an appointment, and how to get help for either dieting or stopping smoking, stuff like that.  That would be the main two topics that we focus on.    

MH: And so when you’re coordinating the content and timing of the posts, what other aspects are you keeping in mind? Are you posting in the morning or the afternoon, and how do you vary the content?

AH: So we post throughout the day starting at 6:30AM, and going up to maybe, 10:30PM.  Usually, prior to 12:30PM, it’s mostly content that is not coming from interns, it’s mostly either from above, like we retweet the Secretary of the Veterans Affairs in the early mornings.  We usually also do the Veteran of the Day posts, which is not the social media team that’s the writing team.  They do that at 12:30, and at 6:30 is usually either, if you have an anniversary post, or a remembrance kind of post, that’s usually when that goes out.  The rest of the day is kind of mixed between Instagram posts and then the VA blogposts that we also put up.  And towards the end, we’ll also come back to mainly Facebook.  We don’t usually keep Instagram going late.  

MH: Can you talk a bit about how your academic journey from being an Earth and Environmental Science Major relates to the internship and its responsibilities? 

AH: I originally thought that I would have like no impact on this internship, given that it’s social media and it’s about veterans.  We do have the opportunity to post frequently about, say like, I think we had Hurricane Maria at one point to post during, the wildfires as well, so that was like the remembrance aspect.  I was able to alert Ray, who’s another DME employee, to post these drafts of either the VA offering some services to help during this time, or like scheduled visits, so say like a mobile clinic that’s going to help people in the hurricane or the wildfires.  So that was something I was able to use in one – the social media aspect, but also the environmental aspect putting those together.  I minored in Political Science as well, so I was able to get credits for this class just talking about the VA, its history, and how the VA is utilizing social media as a tool in a federal agency.  So that was pretty good.

MH: There’s been a lot of talk about how social media can be a force for both good and bad, and how, the content that people are viewing may not be content that they choose to interact with or it could be content that they’re seeing too similar of.  Can you explain a bit about your opinion on what social media’s role is?

AH: Well, we try to minimize criticism on the VA, as social media interns, that’s one of our things.  We can’t put opinion pieces that say oh, the Veterans Affairs is the worst agency ever in the article.  We can’t do that, but we do post articles that still mention the VA saying there’s a long way to go, or they’re doing this and that.  That’s something we try to keep a balance on, but not totally against it.  So I can see the bias, but I mean, why would anyone want to self sabotage themselves.  So it makes sense, and most of our posts are about feel-good, we want things like, oh, a veteran did this, as a recreational thing.  This veteran was able to overcome this obstacle using VA services, things like that.  We just want people to utilize what the VA is offering and spread that, to show that it does work, try, reach out to somebody, reach out to the VA, and we can try to help them.  

MH: And, in your two years with the internship, what would you say is the most valuable thing that you’ve learned either about the veteran community, yourself, or your leadership style, or anything that you’ve gained from this internship experience?

AH: I would say, the leadership.  Ray and Dom, they’re really great leaders and mentors, I’ve never been scolded for anything, I’ve never been reprimanded, I’ve always been told this is this, and if you need help, you can reach out.  If I make a mistake or something, they’ll say, oh, do this instead, but watch out next time.  It’s never been a bad experience, it’s never been like oh, I’m afraid to talk to my leaders.  I try to implement that as an Executive Leadership Team intern for social media.  I try to implement the same with the social media interns.  I would say the second most important thing was just the importance that social media has.  We constantly watched on social media for any harmful or suicidal comments that veterans make on our pages.  We watch for that, and we have to be really quick to make sure that they get their help.  It’s something I never thought was a thing, I didn’t know the VA was doing that.  To be a part of that for both years, I still remember the first time I did mine, it stuck with me, so it’s really good to see that the VA is very proactive in having us as interns watching and making sure that no one feels alone or feels like there is no other options that they have, but they do.  I think that is really great.  

MH: And so when you’re talking about these community pages, whether they’re on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, how are you trying to build a virtual space where veterans can interact with each other or share their thoughts?

AH: We try sometimes to have open-ended questions.  I know in my first year, we had a small activity on Instagram.  We would do silhouettes of military planes or helicopters, and we would ask the veterans, can you recognize what this is?  I thought it was pretty good because I would see the comments, you’d see the veterans saying oh, it’s this, it’s got to be this, I was in the Air Force, I know it was this, stuff like that.  I thought that was pretty good to keep engagement.  We did drop it this year, I’m not quite sure why, but we are again trying to pick up the engagement, so that might actually come back.  Just to create engagement, and we also created the DME Intern Social accounts to also encourage veterans and student veterans specifically to know what the DME is so that they can come on board and intern with us.  As student veterans, they would know what they want from the VA, and we can have an active voice in what’s going on in the VA social media.

MH: How has your engagement with veteran communities changed since you’ve graduated from this internship? 

AH: I would say prior to the internship, I’ve never thought about veterans or the VA that much.  However, throughout the internship, and post, I just realized that there’s so many veterans out there, like I just noticed it more.  It’s something that, if I had the opportunity to, I would continue working with veterans.  Yeah it really changed my perspective, like I can see it everywhere now.  I can see this veteran, and I didn’t notice this person was a veteran before but now I’m taking notice of it.  I just have a very changed perspective. 

MH: How does the DME internship compare to other work experiences that you’ve had, either before, during, or after the internship?

AH: Differing, like I said, the leadership was really good.  I’ve had places that were not so great, that wasn’t interactive, uplifting, or encouraging like Dom, Ray, and the entire internship is.  It’s really just a great environment.  I’ve never had anything like that before, so I’m really grateful for that.  In terms of similarity, my next line of work is also in social media, so it’s really helped me utilize what I learned and take it to a different workplace.  

MH: So you’ve witnessed two years of change during the internship experience, how do you think the internship will change in the future?

AH: I see it continuing to grow, which I really like.  I think the more people, the more help we get, it just brings more ideas.  I do hope that they go for a more engaging viewpoint like they did with the silhouettes on Instagram.  That is something we discussed right before I left, so I do hope it is implemented, and there’s some really great new interns this year, and they have a lot of ideas, so it’s only a matter of time before we see some really good things from the VA. 

MH: Is there anything that you would like to say to prospective applicants who maybe had the same process you did, they didn’t get the first internship experience that they wanted, what would you say to them, or to people who are worried they may not enjoy the program they end up getting selected for?

AH: I would say take the leap with the DME.  It’s a very chill environment, at least from what I can see regarding the social media team.  You’re never going to be alone, everyone’s willing to help.  We have the study hall, the random channels on Slack, so it’s never either too boring like you’re just stuck doing your work.  The fellow interns are really great, collaborative, and you really can get a lot out of it.  There’s a lot of tasks and roles to do in the internship.  Sometimes you can switch, I’ve had interns go from either Social Media to HR because that’s what they liked and we’re totally fine with that.  Some of them went from Social Media to the Web Development or Web Security teams.  It’s for everyone, there’s a lot of room to grow, and just explore new things.

MH: Alright thanks so much for talking to me today Atifa, is there anything else that we haven’t covered so far or anything else that you’d like to say?

AH: I would say definitely don’t be afraid to ask questions, and make sure as an unpaid intern, check to see if you can get credits or some sort of stipend, that would just make it a little more worthwhile.  Dom is really good with getting papers in on time.

MH: Thank you so much!

AH: Thank you for having me.  

SM: Thank you for tuning in to the DME Interns podcast. We hope you learned something about your fellow interns, more about our program, and that you come back and listen to us soon. Have a great rest of your day!