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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Higher education and summer internships usually go hand in hand, with the former a precursor to the latter. But not this summer.
Take Liz Brodie’s story as an example.
After a months-long application process, Brodie found out in March that she had been accepted as a Fulbright summer researcher. Brodie, a junior at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was supposed to live and work at the University of Calgary, analyzing the connection between adequate housing and food resources. The pay was to be $8,000. But then coronavirus swept the world, and her position was cancelled. She had to scramble to find something else to do this summer. Now, she plans to intern for free at the Washington Improv Theater in D.C., not far from her parents’ home in Virginia.
“The virus definitely changed the outcome of my summer,” said Brodie, who is majoring in international relations and environmental studies.
Internships are being cancelled, shortened or moved online, causing another challenge for college students who have had to suddenly leave campus and learn remotely. With online internships, much is lost but there may also be some silver linings.
“A lot depends on who is structuring or designing the experience,” said Matthew Hora, director of the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin. “You can have an in-person internship that’s poorly structured and not very useful or effective or positive for the student. So it’s not as if one modality by default is better than the other.”
About 29 percent of employers are moving their internships online and 15 percent are reducing the number of interns they had initially planned to have, according to a survey published April 3 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. (NACE is regularly surveying employers about this issue and will release new results on April 10.) Nearly two dozen organizations that support students who study science, technology, engineering or math wrote an open letter to employers to urge them not to cancel their internships and instead find ways to virtually employ interns.
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With remote internships, students will likely have fewer opportunities to network and learn the intricacies of different industries, Hora said. Unplanned, off-the-cuff networking experiences that come from chatting in the hallway with coworkers or going out to lunch with a supervisor can’t happen.
“How do engineers communicate? How do nurses work in teams? That’s the kind of thing you’re going to really get in an in-person experience,” he said.
For any internship to be a success, managers and interns must have strong communication, Hora said, and that’s even more important if they are working remotely from each other. Students should advocate for mentorship and meaningful work from their employer to make sure they have a good experience. Colleges and universities should strategize with employers before a student starts, to make sure there is someone from the organization who can properly manage the internship.
These experiences may be challenging for all involved, but online internships may also offer opportunities for students to thrive.
Students who need to work to make ends meet often don’t have the time to be an intern, or they can’t afford the pay cut that comes with many internships.
“If they were going to do an internship, it would have to be in the middle of the night,” Hora said. “For better, for worse, they could do that with an online internship. They could fit it into their schedule.”
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Some employers require online interns to complete projects, which can be done on a less strict schedule for when and where the work happens.
“Many of them are structured that way, where the student is given a project or a task and they can perform it on their own schedule,” Hora said.
Also, online internships may remove some of the grunt work that can come with college jobs.
“With online internships, I would hope we’re not going to see the equivalent of students pouring coffee and making photocopies,” he said.
This story about summer internships was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.
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