Last summer, electrical engineering student Kayla Bhadra completed an internship at the Nevada National Security Site and worked for the agency part time through the year. It was such a positive experience she was planning on a second internship there this summer.
Then ... well, you know.
Fortunately, the site moved quickly to allow its internships to be completed remotely, as institutions, businesses, and the students themselves have all scrambled to find ad hoc solutions so students could continue to gain valuable work experience.
"I had a lot of friends on campus who had received internships with other companies, but when everything began to shut down a lot of their internships got canceled entirely," said Bhadra, who is a rising senior this fall. "I was afraid the same thing would happen with this one. It’s unnerving to have the expectation of working full time for the summer to suddenly be told you won’t be. It left a lot of students unsure what to do. I was so grateful to discover [the security site] was going to push forward and find innovative ways to continue the internship."
Remote internships have been a lifeline for students taking their first steps into the working world whale completing requirements toward their major. Each school and college has had to find its own path forward when it comes to internships.
For the William F. Harrah College of Hospitality, which requires internships of its graduates, it meant creating a new course, the Hotel Administration Seminar, which challenges students to design an entirely new hospitality experience or evaluate a current one.
The seminar was a bit of serendipity for the college. It was already revising its curriculum to do away with the internship requirement in favor of broadening its culminating experience requirements to include either an internship or the seminar course. Instead of forcing students to compete for dwindling — or nonexistent — resources in the hard-hit hospitality industry, the seminar was fast-tracked by about two years.
"We had to kind of scramble faculty and determine who would be the ideal instructors for this class," said Maggie Hausbeck, executive director of alumni engagement & career services for the Hospitality College. "Everything came together. [Faculty] did a yeoman's job of rolling it out. We knew that this was coming and thankfully it had part of that. We were fortunate to have that opportunity."
Interning from 2,500 miles away
Geographic proximity to the halls of power is a core component of internships through UNLV’s Brookings Mountain West. The summer culture of interns from Capitol Hill to the National Mall to the national think tanks that surround is a unique experience for a generation of civic-minded students.
Kristian Thymianos, a rising senior political science major and Brookings Public Policy Minor, was supposed to be working at the Brookings Institution's Washington headquarters this summer. He had just found out he was accepted when shutdowns started taking effect, and was pleasantly surprised to learn Brookings was going to continue his internship, albeit remotely.
"It has been one of the most amazing and phenomenal experiences ever. It has been a really enlightening experience to have very hands-on work, to be doing very relevant work,” he said. “I ended up getting published for the first time as a co-author of an article, so that was cool."
The article Thymianos helped write addresses defunding police and prisons, and fell under the umbrella of policy work being done by Brookings Institution researcher Andre M. Perry, who specializes in race and structural inequality, education, and economic inclusion. As a research assistant, Thymianos combs through articles and data to support Perry's efforts. And he does it through a time difference that does no favors to all but the earliest of early-bird West Coasters.
"I'm waking up at 4 a.m.," Thymianos said. “So it's work out, eat food, and then start work right at 6 a.m. and finish at 2 p.m. I am in it to win it.”
Bleary-eyed hours aside, one of the most vital aspects of internships, the networking opportunities they afford, hasn't been lost in the transition to remote work. Thymianos has done videoconferencing meetings where the interns break up into small discussion groups, and the interns collectively gathered for a video lunch with Brookings president John Allen.
At the Nevada National Security Site, the interns also break down into peer groups who meet over video, where Bhadra has been able to both network and develop professionally.
"Each team has between 6 and 8 students on it, and one member of each team was chosen as the team’s spokesperson. As my team’s spokesperson, I’ve been very appreciative of the opportunity to gain more leadership experience," she said.
Just a taste
One avenue recently opened for students is the microinternship: 10- to 40-hour project-based tasks that let students gain work experience — and get paid for it — at their discretion.
The College of Engineering partnered with the company Parker Dewey to offer microinternships, which get the ball rolling on both networking between students and employers and real-world experience for the next generation of engineers.
"[Employers] are still kind of paralyzed by the COVID-19, but we thought this would be a great way for them to thaw out," said Marian Mason, engineering career services coordinator. "Just find some projects that you guys need doing and let our students apply for them. They still get some experience. It's kind of like a pre-internship of projects that could lead to an internship, which could lead to a job."
Even though it’s not a graduation requirement for engineering students, Mason said, the culture of internships is strong in the college. Students are encouraged as soon as freshman year to start thinking about the specializations they want to pursue and what internships they need to get there.
If it's pushed so hard, it's because the job environment for recent grads is so competitive, she said. Work experience — be it micro, virtual, or even simulated — is vital to getting hired now, which makes the challenge for recent and upcoming graduates in the wake of coronavirus that much harder and alternate arrangements that much more necessary.
"Internships are incredibly important experiences, but they're one example of experiential learning," Hausbeck said. "The real value of internships is the fact that [students] are able to get that applied experience connection in the professional field, and that they're truly in a professional setting. How do we make sure [students] they are continuing to build their career readiness and their employability? Because that's really what all of the applied learning opportunities lend to them."