How College Students Can Still Prepare for Their Future, Virtually

School’s out and uncertainty runs high, but for undergraduates eager to start on their career paths, online internships and other unique learning opportunities can take them further than they anticipated.
Jun 23, 2020 3:15 PM ET
Press Release

By Heidi Mitchell 

When Bellamy Richardson, a rising sophomore at Williams College and an editor at the college newspaper, found out her in-person summer camp job was cancelled, she turned to the jobs website Handshake. There the aspiring journalist found a post from an alum about a summer internship at the local newspaper, By the Way Berkshires. It’s remote, but it’s paid. “My role is to interview organizations and local businesses about how Covid is affecting them,” Richardson, 18, says. “I’m bummed about camp, but I’m excited about the internship. I love being an editor for my school paper and this will be an extension of that.” 

In a regular year, students across the country would build their professional skills and boost their resumes by spending summer months in specialized college programs or gain real world experience working at jobs or internships in their chosen fields. The global crisis has changed the way we do everything, not least of which is how we’ll spend our Pandemic Summer. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 83% of 400 employers the organization surveyed had made some sort of adjustment to their summer internship programs, including shortening or cancelling them altogether. A website called IsMyIntershipCancelled.com does nothing but crowdsource which programs are still going ahead and which have been called off. 

But it’s not all doom and gloom: savvy firms for whom it makes sense have pivoted, with around 46% of those polled were moving their internships online by the end of April, up from 36% at the start of the month. Students eager to gain valuable work experience, learn new skills, network and create new interpersonal connections are adapting fast to this brave new world — and companies who can should, too.

Even Fortune 100 corporations like McDonald’s are embracing online internships so that the critical pipeline of potential future hires remains intact. “We know that our internship population is a great future employment pool for us, and we know that we won’t always be in crisis mode,” says Melanie Steinbach, VP, global talent, for the fast-food company. “We’ve increased support for the managers and interns, upweighted their exposure to leadership and of their group project to foster community and found ways to bring McDonald’s to them in fun and interesting ways.” 

Making lemonade

Not surprisingly, technology companies who made the transition nimbly to remote working have also shifted more easily to virtual internships than other fields. Internet security company Cloudflare plans to double its summer internship program, while Facebook is going remote. HP has moved every internship it can online and has even created a brand new program for thousands of young summer academics. In other industries, the bag is more mixed: Wall Street summer programs have been largely cancelled or shortened, fashion opportunities are hard to come by, media internships face uncertainty even in late May. 

Tanisha Howell, global university program coordinator at HP, knows firsthand the power of internships. She was an intern in 2016, was hired a year later, and today oversees the overall hiring manager strategy, coaching them on on how to best connect and support interns and new graduate hires. In mid-March, all her preparations went out the window with most of HP mandated to work remotely. “We had to decide if we wanted to keep the program going,” she says. “Now everything is going online.” 

She is working with hiring managers to reconfigure projects, help their interns network, and encourage their summer hires to find their own side projects. “We have come up with a book club series, a happy hour series, an executive speaker series,” Howell continues. The 200 or so interns hired by HP this summer have “a very full, robust, paid internship to put on their resumes.” 

Tracy Keogh, chief human resources officer at HP, quickly realized that the remote nature of virtual internships was a feature, not a bug. “While other companies were cancelling internships, we were thinking about how we could get more people involved,” she says, and created HP Summer Scholars, a pilot experience that will help students develop business and professional skills virtually. “I marshalled my team and within a couple of weeks we had a curriculum, teachers, and the head of every division involved,” Keogh says.  

Select students with a year or more of college dedicate 12 hours a week for six weeks with each devoted to a different discipline at HP, ranging from 3D printing to gaming. The program includes resume-building classes and interview role-playing, and ends with a certification as an “HP Summer Scholar” that will stand out on any student CV. 

“It just goes to show that this is a deep unmet need,” Keogh says. If it ends up having a positive impact, HP may expand the program next summer.

Finding new opportunities, creatively

Milyon Trulove, VP and dean of admission and financial aid at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, says internships and similar experience on an application tells him a lot about a potential student. “Schools evaluate activities and internships as a way to understand how you live out your values, your interests and turn them into something meaningful,” he says. 

Do as Bellamy Richardson did, and get on Handshake: it lists 500 companies hiring students right now for remote jobs. Ask your school’s Career Development Office for live leads. Log on to ParkerDewey.com to find a “micro-internship,” a project that takes five to 40 hours in concert with a short-term, professional assignment. Sign up to be a Covid-19 Business Fellow, an initiative started by Alex Littleton and Walker Post, two recent graduates who hatched the idea over Zoom drinks as they commiserated over their friends’ lack of opportunities this summer. “The idea is to give small businesses help in areas where they lack expertise, like web marketing and social media, which is also what students are so good at,” says 23-year-old Littleton. “It’s a win-win.” They have received over 150 applications for both mentors and fellows so far and by the end of next month they hope to have 75 internships and 100 mentors from organizations large and small.

Reed College’s Trulove notes that admissions officers, as well as company hiring managers, already recognize that a typical internship is different from what it was even a few months ago. “If I saw someone taking advantage of these unique opportunities, that tells me they are innovative, a great lateral thinker, and creative in finding ways to apply theory despite really difficult circumstances.”

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