Search “define internships” on Google, and you’ll find that these positions are associated with students who need to gain work experience and fulfill requirements for a program. You’ll also notice that the definition includes the clause, “sometimes without pay,” which is unfortunately still true for a great deal of internships that are available.
The word “internship” can carry a negative connotation because not all of those positions are paid. This can lead to students being wary of applying for internships in general. As a result, this increases applications to general campus positions, such as working as a desk clerk at the library, or customer service work close to campus, such as at fast food restaurants. These positions are absolutely still beneficial, but they often aren’t as applicable to what students wish to go into eventually as their career upon graduation. Working in a kitchen team develops experience in a fast-paced, team-based environment and builds interpersonal skills - which benefits any student from any academic discipline. An internship lets students work a role that better bolsters skills they need for the career the desire. For example, aspiring accountants can better their skills as a Tax Consultant Intern at Deloitte, and budding graphic designers can test their creativity at Pentagram Design.
My professional growth can be defined through the internships I’ve had since my freshman year at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When I first came to campus, I knew that I wanted to be heavily involved to connect with people on a more personal basis as opposed to wandering around in the crowd of 40,000+ students. I also wanted to prove to myself and to family that I could get positions with just an English degree listed officially on my transcript (I didn’t declare my dual degree with Community Health until my sophomore year). As a result, I started my college career as a volunteer consultant at the Writers Workshop and as the sole editor for Education Justice Project. My primary goal walking into these internships wasn’t to make money - in fact, both were unpaid positions. I wanted to develop my skills beyond academic writing, since I knew there was more to learn besides what I was hearing about in the classroom.
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Just because I was doing unpaid work did not mean that I was doing meaningless work. The Writers Workshop developed my writing skills by letting me analyze other undergraduate and graduate students’ pieces. The chance to look at other essays, statements, projects, and so on advanced my own writing, as the internship taught me to more accurately determine how to write for particular genres. It also exposed me to how important it is to adjust communication style based on a person’s reaction through body language. My unpaid work at the Writers Workshop led to me conducting my own research during my sophomore year. Successful completion of this led to them offering me a paid position. Though this is a unique circumstance, I accepted my new title of Writing Consultant and I continue to do the same work with the addition of a paycheck today.
Education Justice Project was also beneficial in my professional growth since I was curious about what it meant to be an editor. I’m used to writing content myself. Freshman year I was not aware the effort editors must put in to looking over 80 pages of material about a topic they may not be familiar with. I was lucky to have a patient team at Education Justice Project to walk me through expectations. My work at the organization taught me a new skill, and it complemented my Writers Workshop position. It felt rewarding to take on a project that I was approaching, with zero knowledge, and to do well. Hearing that the handbook was successfully published was satisfying. I doubt that I would have had the chance to gain this unique experience from a general campus position.
Both of these positions helped me gain the experience I needed to develop my communication skills—my main goal pursuing an English degree. I think it’s important to note, I never treated these positions with the negative connotation attached to the term “internship,” despite the fact that I wasn’t paid. I put genuine energy and effort into my work and was up for midpoint and final review from my supervisors to receive constructive criticism. Even when I felt like I had hit a work rut, where I wasn’t as motivated as normal, I put my best foot forward. I looked to the fine details in the writing pieces I was reviewing to get inspired again. It’s key to interpret an internship as a part-time job, because it invites focus on important skills and reminds students to apply work ethic in what they are doing.
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If you’re in an internship now, paid or unpaid, I challenge you to reframe your perspective about it. Perhaps you see it as dull, unpaid work that doesn’t precisely relate to the career you’re wishing for. Is there a way you can design a project that, upon completion, can benefit both your skill set and the business that you’re at? What aspects about the organization do you think have room from improvement? Do you have ideas that allow you to contribute to the organization’s development? Asking questions like these helps you to become a self-starter. Developing actionable answers broadens your skills while supporting the organization.
Internships are not the same as part-time jobs, but they deserve to be treated as such. It’s understandable that internships carry a negative connotation because plenty offer no pay. But these kinds of positions are arguably still beneficial, if useful skills are learned and developed appropriately. Internships allow students to explore potential career options while helping them pick up applicable skills. A student’s internship experience translates well on a resume as they continue to seek new positions until their full-time job offer upon graduation.
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