June 2023
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Summer career exploration experiences, such as internships, offer critical opportunities for students to grow and fine-tune skills, establish professional networks and gain tangible experiences to tout on resumes and post-graduation endeavors. To help students maximize their summer internship experiences, professionals at Gustavus Adolphus College’s Center for Career Development and St. Olaf College’s TRIO McNair Scholars Program — along with a recent Gustavus grad who experienced internship success — offered their insights to students embarking on summer internships.

Starting with the right mindset

Cynthia Favre, director of vocation and career readiness programs at Gustavus Adolphus College, shares that students can think of internships as ‘try outs’ for future careers or next steps in their education.

“At Gustavus, we think of internships and other early professional experiences as ways to create environments where gaining career experiences are normal and expected and not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’ for students.”

When starting an internship, Favre advises students to start with an open mind. “Expose yourself to different experiences. Look at multiple types and options of internships, externships and short projects. When you do multiple things in the workplace over the summer, you’ll come back to the classroom with a more robust understanding of what you’re learning about. That’s where the real power of an internship happens.”

Overcoming ‘imposter phenomenon,’ building confidence

Recent Gustavus alum, Rosa Chavez (’23), understands the importance of leaving a positive impression during an internship. In the summer between her third and fourth year at Gustavus, she completed a remote human resources internship with Josten’s, a company that specializes in school photography services. In her role, Chavez reviewed applications, scheduled interviews and ultimately helped her team successfully hire hundreds of photographers for Josten’s busy back-to-school season. During her internship, Chavez worked diligently to build strong professional connections.

In fact, during the spring of her final year at Gustavus, she participated in the 2023 Minnesota Private Colleges Job and Internship Fair. While at the fair, she sought out her former Josten’s colleagues. Thanks to the positive impression Chavez made as an intern along with her initiative to stay connected, Chavez received a call shortly after the fair, with Josten’s asking if she’d like to join as a human resources coordinator after graduation.

When reflecting on her own internship success, Chavez recommends starting the internship with a focus on building connections. “You should always give it your best effort. Reach out and connect on LinkedIn with your managers and coworkers. Create good relationships with them, because that can turn into a future opportunity.”

Making connections and keeping them

While the first day of a summer internship can bring excitement, it can also bring feelings of ‘imposter phenomenon.’ At St. Olaf College’s TRIO McNair Scholars Program — a program that aims to increase the number of underrepresented, first-generation and low-income students who participate in undergraduate research and attend graduate programs — helping students feel confident in their abilities to navigate internship experiences is a top priority.

Janis Johnson, director of St. Olaf’s TRIO McNair Scholars program explained that acknowledging imposter phenomenon and talking about how to navigate that is key.

“We often talk with students about navigating feelings of imposter phenomenon especially when in new, unfamiliar territory, such as an internship or early professional experience. In fact, participating in an internship is one way to practice overcoming that imposter phenomenon. Students often find that once they’ve had an internship and have been successful, they gain more confidence.”

Melissa Melgar, associate director of the TRIO McNair Scholars Program at St. Olaf College, also advises students to set attainable personal goals before starting an internship, whether that’s an overarching goal for the whole internship or splitting goals into smaller, weekly achievements. She also recommends communicating those goals with a supervisor or mentor during the internship, which increases self-accountability, establishes shared expectations with supervisors and helps mitigate challenges like feelings of imposter phenomenon.

Thinking about what students can give and gain

When thinking about small ways students can maximize their summer internship experiences, both Johnson and Melgar agree that showing enthusiasm, asking questions and seeking leadership opportunities are all simple steps students can take to demonstrate initiative.

“You have a short time with your internship colleagues and you want to leave a good impression. They might be future recommenders for a job or graduate school,” Melgar said.

With that in mind, Melgar encourages students to be intentional about not only what students want to leave the internship with for themselves but also what students want to leave their colleagues with once the internship is completed.

“It’s important to ask yourself, ‘What kind of impression do you want to leave your colleagues with? What do you want them to say about your work ethic, attitude or inquisitiveness?’”

Learning from the likes and the dislikes

Since internships serve as a practical space for career exploration, Favre, Johnson and Melgar all echo that internships are learning opportunities — and that learning about what you’re not interested in is arguably just as important as learning about what you are interested in.

“This is exactly why you do an internship. Finding out you don’t like certain aspects is actually beneficial,” Melgar said.

If a student recognizes they don’t enjoy a particular aspect of a project they’re working on, Johnson recommends students use that as an opportunity to practice proactive communication skills. “Students can use this kind of experience as a learning opportunity, such as learning how to professionally ask for other experiences in a different area. It’s helpful to communicate with your supervisor as you’re going through it.”

For Favre, understanding the aspects of an internship that a student doesn’t like should be seen as a tool to help students find what career path is the right fit for their interests and expectations.

“Any experience is good experience, even if you find out you don’t like a certain aspect, such as the field, a task or the job itself. It’s a learning experience because you have time to pivot and adjust your career goals. That’s a good thing to learn.”

Maintaining momentum as the internship ends

When an internship concludes with the summer’s end, Favre recommends students spend time adding their new experiences to their resumes in a timely manner. After that, she suggests students reach out to their former supervisors to ask for feedback on how they’ve written about their internships on their resumes. Favre notes this is a good time to express continued interest in future projects with a former supervisor.

“It’s often thrilling for employers and supervisors to hear how they supported your professional development, so don’t be afraid to communicate that back to them,” Favre said.

Other practical tips include finding simple ways to maintain a relationship with a former supervisor or mentor colleague even after the internship is completed.

Even if a student doesn’t have a specific ‘ask’ for a supervisor at the end of the summer, Melgar recommends students continue maintaining those connections they gained. Melgar suggests sending an email once fall classes have started, or even monthly afterwards, to update a former supervisor about what classes the student is taking and including how the internship connects to their coursework.

Johnson echoes the importance of that simple but impactful email, as it creates a natural way for a student to express appreciation for an opportunity and maintains a foundation for a strong recommendation after an internship ends.

“It doesn’t have to be a long note but it offers an easy way to stay in touch, especially if you think you might reach out to ask for a recommendation in the future,” Johnson said.

Chavez offered encouragement from her own experience, “My advice is to take advantage of your college career center’s resources. Those offices are there to help you out, so don’t be afraid to go in. You don’t need a specific reason to reach out. Just starting a conversation will lead to advice and opportunities. Know that you can be confident enough to go in and get started.”

By Rachel Wormer