Changing the Culture of the High School Internship Before It’s Too Late

In a recent article in Salon High-Schooler’s free labor: Why the Internship problem will get even worse, Matthew Saccaro looks at the pressure high school, community college and four year college students are under to find and complete an internship. While much has been written about 4 year college graduates’ less than rewarding experiences in internships, Saccaro points out that such unrewarding experiences are now high on the list of experience for high schoolers and undergrads.
Reviewing recent research on internships, Saccaro shows that competition for internships is growing “fiercer each year” especially when high school students and undergrads are demanding an internship so that they can include it on their resume. And this pressure seems to push students into choosing a career field early on in their education.
According to Saccaro, many internship experiences seem to be a series of menial tasks and do not include opportunities where the intern can use his knowledge nor challenge the intern in his thinking.
But this does not have to be the case for the high school or college interns. As the demand for internships rise, more and more schools and colleges are aware that a well-structured, internship with robust learning goals can be an integral part of a student’s learning.
Quality internships with real world learning for the student do not just happen. Too often a student is left on his own to find an internship, interview for the role, find his way in a new environment and take on the tasks assigned to him by the organizations. And the sponsoring organization, too often, is not clear about what expectations to set and how to challenge the intern in his learning. Thus the series of menial tasks.
For an internship to be of value to the student and to the organization or business the school and college must be the driving force. The school and college must:
• Help the student find an internship so that the student has an opportunity to explore a career first hand – this includes helping the student explore the reality of available placements – not everyone can intern at Google or Vogue or the NBA.
• Help the student prepare for the interview for the internship. As competition for internships grow students need to build those interviewing skills that will get them in the door
• Set challenging and site-specific learning goals in collaboration with the sponsoring organization
• Ensure that the student has opportunities to reflect on his learning and to build real world skills
• Set evaluation criteria so that the student can demonstrate what he has learned
• Intervene and revisit agreed upon goals if the internship experience is not living up to expectations.
Internships must be a challenging learning experience for the student and not paid work.
When students wonder “what’s in it for me?” when they think about internships, they need be encouraged to think about something more long term than pay. They need to see they will have the opportunity to try on a career, make professional connections for life, learn to network and work collegially, learn new skills, try on different roles and finally figure out “when am I ever going to use this information?”
Schools and colleges must take on the responsibility of ensuring that internships do not become the competitive, unrewarding experience that so many of today’s graduates have endured.
Internships should not be a competition. They should be an exploration.

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