This one thing can help students make the most of their college education
A strong internship portfolio includes a handful of examples of different types of work performed in the private or public institution that highlight both routine and higher-level examples of student capacity, creativity and competence
As the calls for canceling student loan debt intensify, it’s time for students and their parents to evaluate how to make the most of an undergraduate education. Ideally, prospective students and their parents should consider a cost-benefit analysis of the major in question (for example, earnings over a lifetime), as well as the four-year price tag of the prospective universities they might attend, before setting foot on campus.
Next on the list, and the subject of this column, would be to consider the value of a well-designed internship at any stage in a student’s collegiate experience. Internships deliver incomparable benefits for students, employers and universities (which themselves are reeling from a credibility deficit given their rising costs and often less than robust career deliverables).
First, there are obvious and more subtle benefits for students participating in a well- designed internship. If students apply themselves to substantive opportunities put forward by providers, they can develop a portfolio of work performed during the internship to carry with them to potential employers. These are tangible evidence, every bit as credible as a diploma, of skills and attributes applied to real world problems.
A strong internship portfolio includes a handful of examples of different types of work performed in the private or public institution that highlight both routine and higher-level examples of student capacity, creativity and competence.
Second, students also adopt and apply communication and research skills better attuned to the workplace than the classroom. Interns learn how to reduce reams of data to bullet points and actionable recommendations. They also learn that slight errors in spelling or awkward syntax in routine memos will not hurt their “grade” but could influence their perceived professionalism within the firm.
Third, in the course of their internships, students may learn that the field they have chosen for a semester does not match up with their skills, interests or financial expectations. It’s a rather low risk setting to test out a particular line of work without the collateral costs of a midlife crisis.
On the other hand, the intern may learn that to thrive in the field of their choosing, they need to adopt a different major that will equip them with the skills to advance in their chosen field of interest more rapidly.
For example, my daughter worked as an intern at the Utah Capitol and learned that to achieve her goals she needed to major in public relations. That crucial piece of knowledge saved her time and money as she charted her way through college.
Universities also benefit from strategically situated internship programs, serving as responsible brokers for students in the transitional phase to their careers. The best programs, and those that redound to the credit of educational institutions, are those that screen students prior to sending them into private- or public-sector internships.
Institutions are branded below the radar by businesses and foundations for the quality of their interns and can leverage consistently higher-level performance for more substantive learning opportunities for future interns bearing their educational imprint.
Finally, businesses also benefit from well-designed and closely mentored internship opportunities. If providers have some sense of the caliber of students they have agreed to mentor (ideally having been vetted by universities beforehand), they can assign interns to higher level work that not only stretch and refine intern skills but also improve their own bottom line. From the public service perspective, it is interesting to note, for example, the disproportionately high number of young people not only working in, but running, congressional offices, many of whom are only one or two career steps away from their own internship in a particular office.
Internships are no longer simply a function of an economy ravaged by the Great Recession and COVID-19 (both of which weakened the capacity of companies to offer as many full-time positions to long term employment), but also serve as the most practical proving ground within a university’s curriculum for highlighting the training that they and a thoughtful internship provider can offer to help promising young students embark upon their professional path.
Evan Ward is currently on assignment as faculty-director of BYU’s Washington D.C. Internship Program at the university’s Barlow Center in the nation’s capital. His views are his own.