Q&A with Ava Mandoli ’21 on her Humans of St. Louis Internship Experience

We recently interviewed Ava Mandoli ’21 about her internship with Humans of St. Louis, and we think you’ll enjoy this inspiring story.

Q: How did you get this internship?

Mandoli: I’m currently a senior, and last year, I took the newly-implemented History of St. Louis class. During this time, we had a variety of speakers give presentations to our class about issues facing St. Louis and how their work relates to it. One of these speakers was Lindy Drew, the co-founder of Humans of St. Louis, which is a nonprofit that shares first-person stories and photographic portraits of people and places all across St. Louis. I’m very passionate about photography and I had been following the Humans of St. Louis (HOSTL) page for years on Instagram, so I was so excited to hear that Lindy was speaking to our class. After her presentation, I wanted to introduce myself and ask if there was any way I could get involved with HOSTL, and I owe a huge thank you to my history teacher, Ms. Kristin Roberts, for encouraging me to do so. That conversation, followed by creating a resume, updating my photography website, filling out an application, and having an interview with Lindy eventually led to the beginning of my internship with HOSTL in January 2020. This position had previously been reserved for graduate students, but Lindy kindly decided to give me a chance because of my photography experience and genuine curiosity and desire to learn more about my hometown. 

Q: How has your internship experience been so far? How has the pandemic changed HOSTL and your work there?

Mandoli: My internship experience so far has been incredible, and I have learned so much about storytelling, St. Louis, and what it takes to run an organization like HOSTL. My experience has certainly looked different due to COVID-19, as we have been largely unable to continue the street interviews that HOSTL is characterized by. However, COVID-19 has also been an opportunity in disguise: an opportunity to come up with creative new ways to continue sharing stories, an opportunity to think critically about our role as storytellers in St. Louis, and an opportunity to use our platform to contribute to and uplift marginalized voices in the larger community conversations that are happening at this very moment.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work?

Mandoli: Something that always amazed me, and continues to amaze me, about the “Humans of…” pages is how they manage to get people to share such genuine and personal stories. My first question when I started interning was, “How exactly DO they do that?” I was lucky enough to be able to go on a few photo walks with Lindy and experience that firsthand, before COVID-19 hit. We met every Sunday afternoon at a different spot in St. Louis and walked around for hours, looking for interesting people who seemed like they had a moment to spare and a story to share. At first, this was way out of my comfort zone. I had gotten my license just a couple of months before, and to be driving to parts of St. Louis that I’d never been to before and asking random people, “What’s your greatest struggle?” or “What’s a lesson you’re still learning?” was scary. At first, conversations always felt hesitant and forced. But I soon learned how much people will open up if you just ask the right questions, and most importantly, listen. Within the 30 minutes to an hour that an interview might take, people would share with us stories that were so personal that it would bring them to tears. The entire premise of HOSTL is vulnerability, and being a part of this process has really shown me that vulnerability is true courage.

Q: How has MICDS prepared you for your internship?

Mandoli: The greatest way MICDS prepared me for this internship was through teaching me to think critically and question the way I think about and interpret the world. I’ve lived in St. Louis for my entire life, and the underlying sense of divisiveness has always been present, but it often remained unchallenged and was written off as “just the way things are.” But my History of St. Louis class really helped me understand the incredibly deep-rooted sources of racism and classism that continue to shape our city today. That knowledge, in combination with the emphasis MICDS has always placed on critical thinking, has enabled me to challenge the subconscious preconceived notions I held about St. Louis as a whole. Interning with HOSTL gave me the unique chance to connect what I learned at MICDS to the real world, and has genuinely changed my idea of what St. Louis is as well as what it could be.