March 2024

Gaining work experience through internships is a key way for students to launch post-college careers

Colin Conteh
Colin Conteh, Concordia College student

As Colin Conteh started school at Concordia College in Moorhead, he was considering potential careers like criminal justice and business. Through classes, work experience, athletics and community leadership, Conteh is zeroing in on the direction he’d like to go after graduating this spring.

Working for two law enforcement agencies in Moorhead and completing a summer internship at Ameriprise Financial in Minneapolis have been meaningful parts of his education. Conteh gained exposure to different work environments, developed diverse new skills and expanded his network, all of which will help him define his career path.

As an advice and wealth management intern at Ameriprise last summer, Conteh enhanced his finance, teamwork and technology skills while supporting the risk management department. He truly enjoyed the work and the learning experience, in addition to gaining exposure to the company’s culture.

“Ameriprise is all about their clients, and it has a positive and high-performance culture,” Conteh said. “Everyone there is trying to grow and get better and come up with new ways to implement and improve their systems. Being in that kind of workplace showed me that I could have infinite growth at this company.”

Completing the internship was an essential part of Conteh’s career development. “The most important part of an internship is getting that experience and building those skills,” he said. “With any job the experience and the growth you have while building the skills and getting life experience is very important. The most impactful parts are the relationships I built and being able to grow and learn.”

Larrick Potvin
Larrick Potvin, an analyst in talent services at Ovative Group

Internship programs certainly help students, but they aren’t the only ones who benefit. Employers also gain immensely by bringing on college students. At Ovative Group — a digital media and measurement firm based in Minneapolis — about 40 interns spend each summer working in a variety of positions. They dive into substantial work, from implementing ad campaigns and doing data analysis to leading client meetings, said Larrick Potvin, an analyst in talent services who runs Ovative’s internship program.

While students obtain new skills and build their networks, they also are showing Ovative leaders their potential to become full-time employees at the rapidly growing company, Potvin said. On top of their contributions to company business, students contribute fresh ideas, varied perspectives and up-to-the-minute knowledge of trends and technology. That’s key because Ovative has been operating in a constantly morphing sector since it opened for business in 2009.

“It’s a long-term gain,” Potvin said. “The landscape of the work in these industries is always changing. We can’t stay stagnant. Our company is relatively young, and our employee age is relatively young, too. We want to bring in fresh, new talent with big ideas and aspirations. We’re learning from them as much as they are learning from us. They bring a lot of life and a lot of energy into the company.”

Andrea Mayer
Andrea Mayer, director of the Office of Career Development and Integration at Concordia University, St. Paul

Private colleges and universities offer many layers of assistance to help students get the work experience they need to land their first post-college jobs. At Concordia University, St. Paul, career development staff stress that any work experience is meaningful, whether it’s a part-time job, volunteer work or formal internship. That’s because unpaid internships are out of reach for many students, said Andrea Mayer, director of the Office of Career Development and Integration.

Bottom line, whether it’s an internship or part-time job, students gain the experience of defining their interests, searching for positions and doing interviews. Add in the day-to-day learning that occurs while doing the work and it becomes a gold-standard experience for students, Mayer said.

Sometimes, key takeaways occur even as students start searching for internships. It’s common for newer job seekers to discount what they learn in the classroom or for students to believe that they should not apply if their skills don’t perfectly match a posting. Mayer likes to challenge students with expanding their notion of what kind of job fits their major.

For example, an accounting major could go beyond that field to seek an internship as a business analyst. “I might give them five job titles to use as they start looking. It’s giving them permission to have fun with it,” Mayer said. “When they don’t have the vocabulary to articulate what they are looking for because it’s so new to them, we have to go and do some exploring.”

Employers understand that intern applicants aren’t always going to have the perfect major or experience for a position, Potvin said. He often considers other qualities in candidates, such as confidence in their abilities, an eagerness to learn and being authentic. Showing off certifications or demonstrating how they could translate a class project to the work environment also helps.

Though it can be challenging, putting in the effort to find an internship ultimately yields broad impacts. Joining the workforce as an intern helps students enhance their networks, and it can confirm a student’s career choice — or show them that a pivot is in order. The high value of internships is why private college staff like Mayer are supporting students searching for them. It’s also why the Trailblazers Leadership Program that Conteh is part of, in the Eddie Phillips Scholars cohort, prioritizes helping the young men it works with to line up these experiences, such as the one he had with Ameriprise.

After completing an internship or other work experience, “I find that it’s rare for a student to not walk away with one of these three things: clarity, confidence or enhanced skill development,” Mayer said.

“A lot of what they gain is confidence in their next step. That next step might be updating their resume, doing another internship or getting a full-time job,” Mayer said. “It’s exciting for students to see their increased confidence and an aha moment — that I can do this.”

Internships are so powerful that students often begin to grow and change even during the experience, Potvin said. Many interns start out intimidated and nervous. By the end of the summer, they are speaking up at meetings, pitching ideas, spearheading volunteer initiatives for Ovative and exuding confidence. After an internship, students return to school with fresh skills, on-the-job know-how and boosted self-assurance that will propel them forward to their next steps.

By Suzy Frisch