What Do Students Think of Their Virtual Internships?

December 7, 2020 | By Claudia Allen

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TAGS: best practices, coronavirus, Internships, nace insights, operations, students, technology,

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How do virtual internship programs compare with their pre-pandemic counterparts? A discussion in the NACE Community addressed what members have heard from students about their summer experiences. Here’s what members said:

There are a couple insights and thoughts that come up for me based on the work my team does. We've seen trends vary based on 1) culture, 2) degree program/industry, and 3) amount of prior experience; however, there are some findings that we've noticed are consistent that speak to the difference in students' expectations versus reality.

These findings aren't necessarily negative in connotation either; many of our students surprise themselves with what they can learn and do in a remote work environment when the training and support is well-positioned with what they are looking to gain from the experience. Examples of this would be:

  1. Students expected to receive menial and easy work, but found their remote experiential learning opportunity to be engaging and challenging.
  2. Students spent more time than expected with senior leadership than they otherwise would have in an in-person internship or pre-pandemic experiences.
  3. Students didn't expect to learn so many professional remote working skills they could apply to their fall recruiting, gap year, or return-to-work plans.

- Cody Rapp, director, Coaching Operations, Paragon One

You might find some of our experiences at the graduate level of interest. We actually had virtual internships already in 1995! A grad student was provided a laptop and sent to Latin America to develop business. He went from one country to another working remotely and providing weekly reports. In 1998, we had two assignments that would qualify as virtual. One was based in Mexico doing due diligence for a U.S. bank on Eximbank loan applications while the other travelled Central America doing due diligence for a company based in South Carolina. In each instance, there was a clearly defined assignment.

Most recently, we also had some very good experiences this summer at the undergraduate level. One was with a French company based in Paris that had a well-defined assignment from the outset. The internship was initially to have taken place in France, but the company was able to pivot and provided a meaningful experience. Though the student was not able to benefit from entirely from the cultural aspect that he would have had interning in France, he did get practical exposure to what a multinational company has to deal with given the time difference.

In another instance, I was coordinating the internships of three students from Sweden who had started their internship on site in the United States, but they were obliged to return to Sweden in March. We were able to adapt and used technology to facilitate the remainder of their respective assignments and the evaluation of the same.

What is key to the success of any internship is the mutual engagement of the person that hosts the internship as well as the intern. Engaging the person who is to host the internship in the selection process and, in particular, an interview really contributes to the success. The greatest amount of disappointment came from the instances where companies had gone through the intern selection process, but were not able to pivot to remote assignments which was not a big surprise given the nature of the disruption. Companies large and small will have had the time to adapt for what will most likely be a continuation in 2021.

- Louis Dessau, employer relations, The Darla Moore School of Business, University of South Carolina

Specifically, [I would alter] “mutual engagement” [to] “mutually beneficial engagement.” While there are many professionals who are happy to host an intern for completely altruistic reasons, when a host sees the benefits beyond the “feel good” aspects, it makes the programs more effective and scalable.

There are two different questions:

  1. Should virtual replace in-person (and my guess is the answer will be a strong “no”)?
  2. Assuming companies need to have virtual programs, what can they do to ensure they are as good as possible?

In addition, we also need to remember that virtual and on-site don't need to be mutually exclusive. Many companies use virtual internships during the academic year as a feeder for on-site summer program and/or full-time hiring.

- Jeffrey Moss, Founder and CEO, Parker Dewey

For the most part, our data showed a mixed bag of benefits (access, convenience, focused projects, love of asynchronous work, etc.) and challenges (lack of human contact, loneliness, inadequate training/support, etc.). But I wonder if it is possible to sort out the powerful dynamics tied to the emotional impact of this past summer as these young people had to pivot so quickly from live internships in exciting environments to interning from their bedroom. Add to this the general isolation due to COVID-19, and here in the Twin Cities, the trauma related to the murder of George Floyd and the resulting riots and unrest that touched many. My overall impression from the majority of our summer interns is that it took all they could do just to cope with these powerful dynamics and still meet the demands of a virtual internship.

I suspect our students engaging in remote internships this fall will benefit from being in work situations that are now much better adapted to managing and supporting interns online and who themselves are better transitioned to remote work and study.

- Michael Porter, internship director, Macalester College

One of my concerns going forward is the temptation to assume that, because intern conversion rates are [at least initially] strong this year, virtual assignments are the way of the future. I understand full-well the allure of cost-savings, but there's a lot more to consider before making that leap.

As someone whose roots are on the employer side of the house, I know firsthand the temptation/pressure to infer from anecdotal [and/or one-off] evidence to the road ahead. When I read that one Big Tech firm claims that “97% of their interns were satisfied with their virtual internships” as rationale for converting their program, regardless of where we are with the pandemic months from now, it underscores the need for a deeper dive that gets at a better understanding of all the factors that influence students, from the appeal of virtual summer assignments to retention. Conversion rates are only a part of the story, and need to be interpreted within the context of “our current reality.”

- Mary Scott, managing consultant, Scott Resource Group

What are your students/your summer interns saying about their experiences this year? Join the discussion in the NACE Community.

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