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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 05/28/2010

Even lousy summer internships can be useful

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Eileen Wilkinson, a college counselor for almost 25 years and former associate director of admissions at Marymount University in Virginia. She has also served as an admissions consultant for major colleges and universities and currently works in education counseling for PrepMatters.

By Eileen Wilkinson
Many high school and college students are now preparing for their summer internships. For most, this is a very exciting prospect. Finally they get the chance to explore a profession of interest and have some exposure to the “real world,” rather than endlessly hitting the books.

At first blush, some internship positions appear to be more appealing than others. The opportunity to tag along with a reporter may be greeted with more “oohs and aahs” than working for a dental practice.

But in some instances the actual internship may be more interesting in theory than in practice, and vice versa. Regardless of the work place, there is something of value to be gained from every internship experience— even the lousy ones.

As those of us firmly ensconced in the 9-to-5 world know, there are very few entirely “glam” jobs, and even those, at times, entail some form of drudge work. Young interns should understand that they have secured a room with a view, not a leading role in the office.

Even the most mundane internship can be enlightening in unexpected ways. At the very least, it can show students what is appealing or unappealing about a particular workplace environment.

Do they find the fast-paced tempo of the life of an E.M.T. stimulating or completely overwhelming? Do they enjoy chatty co-workers and crave social interaction, or would they prefer that everyone “just shut up already” so they can get some work done? Students are not only gaining insight into a particular profession, but also a glimpse of what they value in a work place.

In addition, there are important life lessons that can be cultivated within almost any internship experience. If interns do nothing but fetch coffee and run errands for the former lowest person on the totem pole, these young workers will hopefully learn these basics of professional responsibility: It is imperative to show up on time, ready to tackle the job at hand, and to dress appropriately for a professional environment.

If they quickly realize that someone has to do the grunt work—and they are that “someone”— hopefully they also come to appreciate that even the most menial tasks are essential to the overall effort.

I had the experience of sitting on the intern-employer side of the desk these past several weeks and was graced with the help of my superstar intern, Kerry.

On the final day of her internship, I debriefed Kerry about her experience. Among other things, she had visited a few college campuses, done some research, and shadowed the editing of an earlier blog. One of the more mundane duties she endured was to shred enormous quantities of outdated material...totally exciting.

Thankfully, Kerry enjoyed her internship, despite less-than-thrilling moments of data entry and envelope stuffing. She told me she not only learned more about the profession of educational counseling through her time at PrepMatters, but also the type of people who are drawn to it, and how they interact with each other. Even if she does not end up following in my footsteps, I think it’s fair to say that the time she spent observing our office culture was a productive use of her time.

Kerry also shared some of the discoveries that her friends had made during their internships. As one might expect, some of the more coveted internships fell flat. At least one future educator is now reconsidering her professional goals after spending way too much time (in her estimation) with kindergarteners.

Internships may not be obvious successes in the moment, but if students are wise, they can gain a great deal of self-knowledge in the process. If your son or daughter completes an internship saying, “I never want to step foot in that office again,” congratulations!

That is an incredibly valuable lesson to have learned before entering a profession. Encourage your child to go back to the drawing board, consider the lessons learned, and use the next internship or summer job as an opportunity to see if he or she is any closer to pinpointing the best profession and work environment for the long run.


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By Valerie Strauss  | May 28, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Student Life  | Tags:  boring internships, great summer internships, student life, summer interns, summer internships  
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