The ins and outs of internships

Whether as a degree requirement or as a way to boost one’s resume, internships provide students with ample opportunity to get hands-on experience in their desired job field.

Mardy Ashe knows all about where to find, how to get and how to succeed at internships as the director of Career Services & Cooperative Education in the Killian Annex.

“I would guess that over 50 percent of the majors at Western require an internship, and more are coming to that conclusion. It’s probably between 60 and 70 percent who now require it,” said Ashe.

Ashe stated that even if students’ degree programs do not require an internship, having one can put an individual in a more stable position to secure a job.

“It’s just a known fact that employers expect to see directly related work experience on a resume. It’s not just holding a job anymore. It’s related experience,” said Ashe. “It gives a student hands-on experience in that field, and it’s the only way they’re going to get it. The course projects can, but it’s under your professors in a controlled laboratory. You’re not really out in the field. Directly related experience is number one. That’s the purpose of [an internship].”

Internships are also helpful because some students arrive in college having never held a job. With no experience to list on their resume, students can apply for an internship and, on occasion, be hired by that company at the end of the internship, securing their future after graduation.

“A student has hopefully held a job by the time they’ve come to college or during college. Some haven’t,” stated Ashe. “So, they’ve experienced that dependability, reliability, arriving on time, dressing appropriately, but maybe they haven’t. . . .So, the first real job experience is this internship, and they see what’s it’s like in the real world.

“People are going to get a decent bachelor’s degree education, and it’s very similar at the bachelor’s level,” continued Ashe. “We’ve got millions of people graduating with a degree in x. What makes this person over here from Western Carolina University any different from this person over here who graduated from Texas A&M? Well, maybe the internship. Everybody should do an internship.”

Ashe explained that Western Carolina’s students see internships from all types of companies all across the nation and the world year round, saying, “. . .where they work just varies with the individual.”

The process of a student finding an internship usually begins in Ashe’s office or in an office of one of her department liaisons. 

“If a student comes to me and says to me, ‘I’m an x major and I’m looking for an internship,’ my question to him or her is ‘What do you want to do after graduation?’ You don’t want to become ‘Oh I have this internship that I have to do. Oh, I guess I’ll work at x,’ you know?” said Ashe in relation to a degree-required internship. “We want the internship to be positioned towards what the individual wants to do. What good is it if they’re just doing it to get it out of the way?”

After establishing what the student wants to do, Ashe helps them look at locations and positions.

“Is there something like that back home? It’s cheaper to live at home, certainly. But then, you know, hospitality and tourism – you want to go to Disney World? We have interns at Disney World. What is it that you want to do, and let’s see if we can’t find something that is related to that so that by the time you graduate you’ve got some experience in that [field].”

Ultimately, the answer to the question that Ashe reiterated repeatedly lies in the student’s career-oriented passion.

“Is that what I want to do? There’s no hidden thing here,” said Ashe. “Do I want to do this? Do I want to work in newspapers? Do I want to work in public information? Do I want to be a nurse in a hospital? Do I want to be a pediatric nurse? Do I want to be a nurse in an emergency room? … What is it that I want to do, and can I get in there? Who do I know who can maybe forward my information? Do I meet their qualifications? Do I have the required GPA? So, you know, you have to look at a couple of different things.”

According to Ashe, most employers look for interns who are in their junior and senior year in college. This way, students have had ample opportunity to take courses that are major specific. They have acquired skills from the classroom to apply in their internship. Still, the process of looking at internships can begin freshman year in Ashe’s office when she asks them about their choice in major.

“When you’re choosing a major, and I tell this to all freshmen,” said Ashe, “we look at interests and abilities and values to make sure we’re choosing the right major, and then what is it that you want to do with that major. Is it conceivable? Would you be willing to move out-of-state to work at that job? It may not be at home. It might not be in Charlotte, even, so would you be willing to move for that particular position? Then, what is it? If we can be specific, sometimes we can’t, of what you want to do, and where can we find an internship that is similar to that.

“We’re not looking at income,” continued Ashe. “Some of them are paid, and some of them aren’t. If a student really wanted a directly-related work experience, he might have to take something that’s not paid, but then the requirement often times is fewer number of work hours for the credit.”

For undergraduates who want to take advantage of internships opportunities, they are not required to sign up and pay for whatever internship course is available in their major.

“You can do an internship for credit or not. Theoretically, we think of an internship as an academic thing, academic requirement,” said Ashe, “but a lot of times an employer will call a related position that he or she is creating an internship. Sometimes, that’s a sneaky word for ‘not paid.’ . . . Most times, we’ll tell the employer if you can offer something, even if it’s just gas money or a stipend particularly in this area where a student might have to drive to Asheville or drive to Waynesville or drive to Franklin. If you could offer something to him or her to drive that distance, it’s a little bit more palatable, then we can say that you have to work 200 hours in a non-paid experience, but they will consider giving you some gas money.”

If a student cannot or will not do an internship, Ashe highly suggested getting a summer job and working as much as possible.

“That’s stupid not to work,” said Ashe. “Do we see students who have not worked? Yeah. I’ll have students who come in and are very proud of the fact that they’ve graduated in three years, but they’ve never held a job. Do you think an employer is going to be impressed with that? No, he’s not. He wants to see work experience. GPA, fine, but if you’ve never been in a job, you have never worked with other people, you have never shared lunchtime. . . you’re missing out.”

Ashe works with a number of faculty members who work hands on with their students within their department to seek appropriate internships. The faculty members also approve or deny internships.

“We have faculty liaisons in most departments,” said Ashe. “If I get an internship in communications or public information, I’ll send it to my faculty liaison. If it’s not for a specific student, that faculty liaison is going to look at it and determine whether or not that’s a credible experience for an x major.”

Deidre Elliott is one of those faculty liaisons for Ashe. Elliott has worked for over seven years with English majors and their internships, especially with those who have a concentration of professional writing as they are required to have an internship to graduate.

 “The best part [of the job] is watching the students grow and mature and find the right niche for them in a career, for each individual,” said Elliott. “You know, it doesn’t always happen. Some students have never had any work place experience, not even as a volunteer, so it’s a real introduction to them to what you have to do in order to be an employee. So, when I see a student who has had no experience gain that experience, gain that maturity. Then, of course, the really best part is when students get a job from that internship.”

Sometimes, students are unable to finish an internship in one semester. While this can mean that the student works an extra month or two, sometimes it has serious consequences, which is why choosing the right internship is so important. If the internship is required by the degree and the student does not finish the mandated hours, he or she cannot graduate. Once the hours are completed, Elliott changes the incomplete grade to a passing grade. Her recommendation is to never put off researching and looking into internships.

“What’s the number one mistake undergraduates make? I’d say waiting too long to start looking for an internship,” said Elliott. “In order to find the internship that’s perfect for you that works out where you’re going to be during the summer or the semester, you have to start looking as soon as possible. And, some students start pretty early, and they land really great internships.

 “I’d say it’s maybe like, I don’t know, an eighth of the students who don’t complete their internships in a semester,” continued Elliott. “You know, because they’re motivated. They have other things that they want to move on to.”

Elliott also commented on the complaints that stem around internships. Why should students pay for a course where they work as an employee of a company for free?

“There certainly is controversy about internships these days,” said Elliott. “There’s been a lot of talk nationally. It’s an issue about whether it’s fair, fair to the students to work for free, but I think that there’s an exchange that goes on. And, that exchange does not involve money for the student, but it does involve certain benefits.

“From the employer’s side of things, the employer gets work hours,” continued Elliott. “The student gets five things, I would say, in general. First of all, they get experience. The second thing is the student makes contacts, so that if they don’t get a job in an internship, they know somebody who might lead them to some other employer who is looking for someone. The third thing that our interns get is they learn these skills. The fourth thing is insight, where students get to see behind-the-scenes of the job that they think they want to do. Sometimes, students realize they are in the perfect place. . . and other times, they discover ‘Oh, this isn’t what I really like.’ Although, that’s hard to come to, especially as you’re a rising junior or senior, better to know it now before you graduate and spend 20 or 30 years doing something you don’t like. And, the last thing is they do get in exchange three hours of university credit. So, on balance, if you look at the 150 hours that they put in versus the five things they get. . . I think it works out to a fair exchange.”

Elliott’s parting words consisted of a few sentences of wisdom.

“I think some advice that I might give to a student is that they look for an internship that is a good fit for them,” said Elliott. “It’s a place where they really want to work. It’s not just something that you’re going to try to jump through the last hoop in order to graduate. We think that the internship is a significant part of a student’s education, so they should spend some time in thought about what they really want to do.”

For more information, check out Career Services and Cooperative Education by calling 828-227-7133, or talk to the faculty member in your department who handles internships.