Connecting School to Work Through Internships

It didn’t take an internship for me to learn that you often wear many hats in any job. I spent ten years working in a university career center where a staff of eight helped hundreds of students and alumni connect with employers for many types of work experience. Administering skill and interest inventories, improving work-readiness, helping students write résumés and internship contracts, managing job and internship listings, even coaching people through job loss—I helped students with just about every part of the employment process.

For many of those years I wore the hat of campus employment specialist, helping students get on- and off-campus jobs to earn their work-study awards, and assisting the university staff with supervision issues. As part of the college application process, high school students were required to submit a true résumé, a first for many of them. Each year I wound up reading nearly 1,000 of these résumés, trying to match students’ interests and experiences to various jobs on campus.

And, every year, I saw that more and more incoming students had done internships or had great experiential learning opportunities as well as typical summer jobs. Those high school experiences varied widely. A few were paid, most were not. There were internships in nonprofits and ones in business settings. Some were strictly volunteer positions with no academic support, and some were paid part-time jobs with a job title of “intern.”

Internship attributesBut the ones that were most likely to have helped a student gain perspective on work usually had the components we required in our own college-level internship program: research and planning; setting academic goals; working at the site; a mentoring component at the work site; assessing performance, including reflection on the experience; and open communication between the student, supervisor, and school.

Today, almost every industry has internship programs targeted at high school students. This is driven by several factors. Some fields are finding it increasingly difficult to hire qualified workers, so they develop internship programs to help students see the value in studying that field. Many nonprofits have always depended on minimum wage or unpaid interns to help them serve their constituents or do outreach and fund-raising. Corporations are also valuing this opportunity to employ entry-level workers at reduced rates. In some cases, cities and states are developing programs to target at-risk students or to fill particular seasonal needs. Internship listings aimed at high school students are not always easy to find, but many entry-level positions listed on college sites will accept younger students. Searching online by type of business rather than by age will often yield more results.

When high school students are considering an internship, they should take the time to establish a goal that articulates what they expect to get out of the experience. Is their goal to learn more about community activism? A nonprofit supporting an area of interest might be a good fit. Do they want to see what types of jobs people who love mathematics are doing? Perhaps look at accounting assistant positions or research and statistics employers. Students should also review their prior courses, work, and volunteer experiences, and be prepared to discuss how those skills can help with the internship.

internship ad collageBefore looking at internship listings or sending off inquiries, it is important to research the field of interest, the types of positions, and possible sites. Understanding the variety of jobs available in the chosen work area and looking at the entry-level and support work that interns might do there will help when students set up the internship with the school adviser.

Many students will also need to consider their financial needs, because most will receive little or no pay for their work. Students should also find out what support is available through the school, whether it’s receiving credit for work, having a school adviser, or getting help in finding an internship site.

More than one person may be supporting the student in the internship process. Perhaps the school counselor oversees the actual work release and off-site permissions, but a teacher helps the student by defining writing and reporting assignments. Working with the student to plan the learning contract and define how progress toward goals will be measured, the adviser will usually be the coordinator between the school and the work site. The adviser should ensure that there is open communication between the site, student, and school at all times.

At the work site, supervisors of high school interns need to set clear and appropriate expectations for work, attendance, tasks, and preparation just as they would for any employee. But they also need to take school schedules and the students’ age into consideration. Ideally, the supervisor or someone on staff will be able to mentor the student as well, coaching, teaching, and helping the student see how his or her work fits into the big picture. Supervisors must be willing to support any paperwork or meetings required by the school.

Girl walking a dog, public domainThe value of an internship can vary for each student. It may be a life-defining experience or just plain boring. It may provide an alternate way to earn credits without being stuck in a classroom. For some students, internships have helped clarify school goals. “I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian,” says Kristin, soon to be a high school senior and a paid dog-walker. “I did a summer internship with a busy clinic, and had study projects assigned by school. While I loved the animals, I found that the hands-on care and examination were not for me! I did spend three weeks helping with lab work, and the lab manager told me I asked great questions and was very thorough. Now I am considering a medical support career.”

How do high school internships affect the college application process? Academic performance is still the first criterion for admission, but sometimes those early internships make a difference. High school students who are doing internships should clearly show that they paired the work with required readings and reflections. They should show a level of commitment to projects, self-direction, and follow-through.

Have you worked with a high school student doing an internship for school credit? What suggestions would you offer the student and the adviser?

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Suggested Resource caters to college students, but if you write in “high school” as your major, there are listings.

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About Mary Stennes Wilbourn

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