Student impressions of virtual internships, remote first jobs

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Claire Jeantheau, like many college students, was finishing up her junior year with a semester abroad while awaiting word on summer internships. When COVID-19 hit, she was sent back home from Denmark and into quarantine.

“Dozens of organizations I’d applied to work with canceled their summer programs,” says Jeantheau, who is majoring in classics and education at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania and hopes to land a marketing and communications job after graduating this year. She came across a posting for a virtual internship at the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and recalled a positive experience an alum had shared about the organization. After two phone interviews and a look at her digital portfolio, CDF hired her for a June-to-August 2020 work experience — not in D.C. but from her home in central Virginia.

“The money I saved by working from home was a huge advantage,” she says. “I also enjoyed having the freedom to manage my work between the fixed parts of my schedule. I had several creative projects, and it was nice to adjust my hours as needed based on which stage of the process I was in.”

Once considered rare, virtual internships and first jobs out of college are a lot easier to imagine in the age of COVID-19, when remote everything has become the norm.

In a new Student Voice survey of 2,000 college students — conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan — 38 percent are at least somewhat interested in a fully remote internship during college, with 18 percent extremely interested. And 34 percent would be at least somewhat interested in a fully remote first job after graduation (15 percent extremely interested).

The survey, fielded March 2 through March 9 and representing mainly traditional-age students, found that women are more likely than men to be somewhat or extremely interested in a virtual internship (43 versus 34 percent), as are students at public colleges compared to private colleges (42 versus 31 percent). In addition, people of color have a lot more interest than their white peers do (60 percent of Asian students, 47 percent of Black students and 45 percent of Latinx students, versus 33 percent of white students). People of color and public college students are also more likely to have interest in a fully remote first job.

Lakeisha Mathews, a certified career coach and director of the Career & Internship Center at the University of Baltimore (where the average student age is 28), surmises this about the public college student interest in such opportunities: “In public education you see a lot of students who switch from college to college; they’re a little more savvy in getting resources. Public institution persons are also more likely to be low income, more likely to be first generation. What they’re looking for is personal advancement. They bring grit with them.”

Mathews, whose office has been offering its services virtually for the past year, has noticed a strong preference among students for in-person experiences. But the provost is only allowing virtual experiences right now, and students have gotten on board. Apprehension ruled in the fall, but this semester she’s seen a changed attitude as students embrace virtual as the new normal.

Here’s how participation in supervised virtual internship experiences through the University of Virginia Internship Placement Program (IPP), which reflect not just student willingness but also employer buy-in, has grown since the pandemic started:

In summer 2020, the program had 60 remote interns.
In fall 2020, that number increased to 83.
In spring 2021, the number reached 148.

Rebecca H. Coulter, associate director of the program at the UVA Career Center, says that “a network of support is vital for students in a virtual internship.” That’s why IPP students complete a discussion-based internship reflection course during their experience. “This course, which meets synchronously on a weekly basis, gives students the opportunity to discuss their internship experiences with a faculty mentor and peers,” Coulter says. “Being virtual can be isolating, but having a network to bounce ideas off of and seek support can make the experience more meaningful and fulfilling.”

Support is needed in part because perceived benefits can become challenges. An example is the flexibility of internship hours. “It can backfire if students have trouble with time management,” Coulter says.

Read on for more perspective on virtual work experiences from career center leaders (interviewed by phone) and students (interviewed via email), as well as ideas for making workplace distance learning work.

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Virtual Ups and Downs

The money Jeantheau saved working from home rather than at the Children’s Defense Fund headquarters is a benefit many remote interns experience. “Although CDF offers a stipend, the costs of housing, transportation and food for a summer in D.C. would still be high,” she says.

In fact, her Dickinson peer Brendan Wilmot, who is currently completing a virtual internship for a D.C.-based industry trade association, refers to these experiences as a “great equalizer” for students at colleges located far from major metropolitan areas. “Doors are opened for students completing virtual internships, in that they can engage in opportunities with organizations anywhere,” he says. Besides not needing to spend his internship earnings on expenses, he appreciates the chance to have an internship in a distant city during the academic year (although that city is the one he hopes to work in or near after graduation next year).

Wilmot, who also had a remote internship in the fall, has felt valued in being included on large calls with clients. “Zoom meetings do not have finite attendee counts, unlike conference rooms, and do not require expensive travel,” he notes.

A standout moment in Sydney Towle’s recently completed remote internship with the New Hampshire Supreme Court also involves Zoom. The Dartmouth College junior, who is pursuing a double major in government and environmental studies, was the guest of honor during the goodbye Zoom call. “The justice and her law clerks told me how impressed they were with my contributions and work, especially in a virtual environment,” Towle says. “It was really nice to hear that I was surpassing their expectations, especially given how difficult it can be to assess yourself when you’re not in person and have people around to tell you that.”

The flexibility of not having set work hours or even hard deadlines was appreciated by Towle, who says she has social anxiety. “Being able to be alone and be in my chosen environment is a nice mental break.”

Brendan Wilmot, who is currently completing a virtual internship for a D.C.-based industry trade association, refers to these experiences as a “great equalizer” for students at colleges located far from major metropolitan areas. “Doors are opened for students completing virtual internships, in that they can engage in opportunities with organizations anywhere,” he says.

Screen time can affect students in virtual internships, however.

“I was spending a lot of time glued to Zoom for hours straight,” says Jeantheau. Besides meetings with colleagues, she had intern workshops and networking events. “I had to learn over the course of the internship how to say no to optional things that wouldn’t necessarily benefit my work for the week,” she adds.

Towle, meanwhile, found it more difficult to form professional relationships “when you only Zoom with people once per week.”

David Lapinski, director of employer relations and experiential learning at the University of Virginia Career Center, has seen high demand for students to complete virtual internships in technical disciplines with backgrounds in STEM, as well as areas such as artificial intelligence and data science.

The one-year undergraduate research internship being completed by Alexandra Arabio, a forensic science and biology major at Cedar Crest College, in Pennsylvania, is one example of a virtual STEM experience. She’s working for the Center for Statistics and Applications in Forensic Evidence in a role that was originally scheduled to end in August 2020 but has been continually extended.

She finds feedback from faculty and staff at Iowa State University, the center’s main host institution, to be motivating, especially during a time she felt “in a rut with progression.” Outside of regularly scheduled meet times, she worked with another intern “to gather thoughts and progress again,” she says.

Opportunities to collaborate with people from different locations in her internship has led Arabio to believe she would pursue a remote first job after graduation. And Jeantheau, who has done remote work for Dickinson offices, says taking on a virtual first job would feel natural to her.

Support Systems and Actions

At UVA, Lapinski’s team has found that project-based and team-based virtual internships that engage mentors work best for students. “The combination of these three elements keep the students engaged, promote accountability with teammates and provide students with a clear project-based deliverable,” he says.

But the ball isn’t only in the employer’s court, and many career centers are beginning to show students who are pursuing virtual internships some love.

The Career Center at California State University, Fullerton, for example, has modified its workshop on succeeding in an internship to apply to virtual experiences. “You still need to be there on time, follow all the guidelines and dress appropriately if meeting by Zoom,” says Jennifer Mojarro, director of the center. The workshop also provides guidance and encouragement around networking remotely.

Support need not come only from career center offices. At Cedar Crest, for example, Arabio also credits the student success office for “giving me different time management resources to make sure that I kept myself on track and didn’t overschedule my time.”

Jeantheau identifies three skills that helped her most while working remotely: perseverance, adaptability and openness to digital technology. “Advisers helping students as they apply should show them how to identify those qualities,” she says.

She also suggests colleges organize events where former virtual interns can share their experiences. “Our education honor society just had an internship panel with a focus on virtual work, and it generated a lot of good conversations,” she says.

“Some jobs are never going back. In a year, we’ll see which industries are hybrid and which remain virtual. Working virtually is very different from working in person, and it needs to be navigated differently.” — Lakeisha Mathews, director, Career & Internship Center, University of Baltimore

Students searching for virtual work experiences may also benefit from guidance on uncovering opportunities. “Students need to be encouraged to look at opportunities in every region of the country, considering location is no longer a constraint,” says Wilmot. “Students should look coast to coast.”

Towle, who got her internship because a Dartmouth alumna had posted the position, suggests direct alumni outreach about interest in hosting virtual interns.

Guidance for remote first jobs could include what questions to ask when in-person observation opportunities are missing, says Mojarro. “What’s the culture like? The culture is going to matter even in a virtual sense. If you really like that team/collaborative culture, if it’s not happening, it could be really hard.” Research should involve what the position would look like, as well as the supervision and training, she adds. An applicant might ask, what are some of the things I should know about when it comes to training in a virtual environment?

Career center administrators are keeping an eye on which industries are embracing virtual work environments. “Some jobs are never going back,” says Mathews, pointing to new remote work policies at major tech companies. “We need to start looking at this. This round of graduates will be the graduates from here on out. In a year, we’ll see which industries are hybrid and which remain virtual. Working virtually is very different from working in person, and it needs to be navigated differently.”

With so many academic and personal life areas to navigate during COVID, many students have not made time to focus on their careers. The Student Voice survey found that only about 10 percent of respondents spent time using career center services and focusing on career development in the past year.

But Mojarro’s office has seen participation soar, particularly as live workshops went virtual. Her team also converted the comprehensive I Am First program for first-generation students from an in-person experience to a virtual one. “The way we prepare students is going to be different now,” she says, “and I think it’s a good difference.”

Explore the full results of the Student Voice survey on COVID-Era College.

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