3 ways to make sure internship experiences are valuable

Avoid sending your students on semester-long coffee runs

Caroline Hopkins, Staff WriterCaroline Hopkins, Staff Writer

You hear it so often it's become a cliché—the story of the hopeful college student who ventures off to a summer internship only to end up spending three months making photo copies and fetching coffee.

These types of internships are a waste of time, and though many college leaders would like to think our students aren't falling into this trap, it happens more often than you might think. According to a 2015 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the most common reasons that students report being dissatisfied with their internships are a lack of professional development and a lack of meaningful responsibilities. 

There's more pressure today than ever before to prepare students for the workforce—and one step toward that goal is to ensure we are sending students to high-quality internships. Here are three ways to vet employers and assess the experience they provide for your students. 

1. Employer interviews

Jennifer Lowery, internship coordinator at Notre Dame College (NDC) in Ohio, tells the EAB Daily Briefing that vetting employers is a major priority, since all NDC students are required to complete an internship to graduate.

"We don't let just anyone come in and partner with us, for a lot of reasons," says Lowery. "We put a lot of emphasis in vetting employer partners."

For an internship to be meaningful, employers need to understand their obligation to mentor and educate the intern—not just reap the benefits of cheap labor. 

The same goes for on-campus student employment

Lowry says that one of the ways her office vets employers is by meeting with some of them before establishing an internship. During the conversation, they discuss "the emphasis on the students, the mentorship, and the development [of the student] as opposed to what the outcome would be for the company."

"The [employer's] mindset doesn't always start there," Lowery adds, "but if they're going to partner with us, it has to finish there."

Staff at Elon University also interview employers before establishing an internship program, according to Pam Brumbaugh, the director of experiential learning. Brumbaugh tells the EAB Daily Briefing the university has had an experiential learning requirement in place since 1994.

Elon career advisors ask employers questions such as:

  • How long will the student be working?
  • Who will be supervising the student?
  • What will the student's tasks and responsibilities look like? and
  • Does the employer have a physical space and computer for the student?

Brumbaugh acknowledges that some of these questions might seem trivial—but, she warns, they should not be overlooked. For example, employers occasionally don't consider the issue of physical space before taking on an intern or take the time to think through an intern's specific tasks. 

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After the initial conversations, Brumbaugh says, Elon's specific academic departments step in to ensure the internships meet the requirements for each course of study.

2. Visit internship sites

The faculty and staff at Elon's Student Professional Development Center (SPDC) make a habit of visiting the companies where their students intern. During site visits, Elon faculty and staff meet with employers and interns to check up on progress and make sure the experience continues to meet established expectations.

Brumbaugh says site visits are important for maintaining consistency. Just because an employer was vetted once does not mean it will continue to meet standards.

One particular case stands out to Brumbaugh: "We placed a student in a legal situation working with a lawyer who had been superb in past internships," recalls Brumbaugh. During a site visit, it became apparent that "that particular summer, [the lawyer] was in Singapore and he wasn't on site."

Elon pulled the student from that internship, because the educational value of the internship was supposed to derive from the lawyer's mentorship. "We said 'no, that is not going to work,'" Brumbaugh remembers. 

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NDC also occasionally visits employer sites. In addition to checking up on employers, Lowery says she sees the visits as "a way for the student to show off" their work and to "learn more about that experience and then carry it forward to the next intern."

3. Student beta-testers

When it comes to securing the best possible experience on both ends, Lowery and Brumbaugh agree that students themselves should play the biggest role in vetting their employers.

Molly O'Connor, an EAB senior consultant on the Student Affairs Forum, says she sees this approach frequently in her research.

"A lot of schools want to prepare students to manage employer relationships," O'Connor says, because not every school has the resources to conduct site visits. "The way [to vet these internships] is to empower students to demand value from employers," O'Connor adds.

She recommends helping students clarify exactly what they're looking for in an internship and prepare them to assess whether an employer would offer an educationally meaningful—and relevant—experience.

NDC's employer vetting process includes a shadow program, which Lowery says is kind of like a "beta test version" of an internship. For up to two days during sophomore year, students can visit a company, speak with employers, and participate in some of the work they would be doing as interns.  

"It's a way to demo some of our newer partners to see if in fact they will be good internship providers," says Lowery. "That's really how we start with our newer partners."

NDC students write reflection papers after the shadow period and after they've completed a full internship. Students write feedback about the company broadly and whether they'd recommend the internship to other students.

It's through these reflection papers that Lowery says the vetting really comes into play. "[We see] the validity of the experience altogether to make sure that we're preparing our students enough… and that the employers are in fact giving the students a good experience."

"We may not send another student back there based on the student's experience—or lack thereof," says Lowery. "We really delve into the feedback."

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