With June well underway, summer internships are looking vastly different than businesses and students alike had imagined. Most have been restructured due to COVID-19, and some were canceled altogether.
For SML Good Neighbors, a nonprofit in Moneta, cancellation was not an option.
The organization provides summer and after-school programming for children and internship opportunities for college students. Executive Director Lisa Lietz said the summer program is being held online this year.
“Our interns are actually the second half of our mission statement,” she said. “Not having them was kind of like a deal breaker.”
Under normal circumstances, interns move into the Moneta headquarters and undergo team building together before the eight-week program begins. This year, almost all of them are teleworking.
The interns who have the resources to work from home do so, Lietz said, but there are two interns who moved into the Moneta headquarters because they couldn’t access the internet at home. She said technology issues are a challenge in conducting virtual internships.
“We’ve made training videos for volunteers,” she said. “The intern can help families directly with problems like logging in. ... It requires a lot of patience and flexibility for sure.”
Braxton Justice is one of the two interns who moved into the headquarters. He said he’s from a small town with little access to high-speed internet.
Justice is a rising junior at Emory & Henry College and is returning for his second summer with Good Neighbors. Last year, he said, each intern had their own classroom with about 25 students. This year, there are two interns per classroom, and each classroom only has about three or four students. He said that establishing connections with students is more difficult virtually.
“In person, you can be really high energy,” he said. “It’s a lot harder to keep a first grader’s attention over the internet.”
Justice is the head intern this year, which would normally mean that he doesn’t have a class of his own but monitors the other interns and helps with behind-the-scenes tasks. Instead, he said he’s found himself helping with “lots and lots of tech support.”
“I have quite literally become an IT specialist,” Justice said.
But bigger than the technology challenges is something more personal.
“I think the biggest challenge is not being able to see everyone face to face,” Lietz said. “But we’re happy to take on every challenge, whatever we can do to provide support to our community is the number one priority.”
Despite the lack of in-person work, Justice said, there are still a lot of takeaways.
“We’re still doing what Good Neighbors is all about. It may not be to the same magnitude, but what we can do, we are.”
Other college students weren’t as lucky.
Marilyn Sample, a rising junior at Washington and Lee University, also had plans to intern with a nonprofit in the area. But when Blue Ridge Literacy closed in March, it was unable to offer any remote internships.
“I think Blue Ridge Literacy is so focused on in-person work, it just wouldn’t have been as meaningful remotely,” Sample said.
Sample, who chose the nonprofit partially because of her interest in pursuing education, is working as a remote intern for Career Collaborative in Boston instead. She echoed Justice’s sentiments about online work.
“You’re just not getting that office experience,” Sample said. “It’s harder to ask questions.”
Like Blue Ridge Literacy, Carilion Clinic has canceled internships in their entirety. Carilion usually hosts about 2,000 students every summer through clinical rotations, internships, job shadows and summer camps, spokeswoman Hannah Curtis said.
A statement from Dr. Dan Harrington, vice president for academic affairs, cites “an abundance of caution” as the reason for canceled internships and shadowing.
“We miss our student learners and look forward to the time when they can safely return,” the statement said.
While Blue Ridge Literacy and Carilion were unable to host virtual internships, other businesses were literally built for it.
1901 Group in Blacksburg is an IT services company that already had experience with remote interns. Sheri Neely, vice president of operational performance, said the company regularly conducts virtual internships with college students during the academic year, but this is the first time that work has been 100% remote.
“It really doesn’t change for us, the way that COVID-19 has affected other organizations,” she said. “We’re very fortunate that way.”
1901 Group has 16 interns this summer, an increase from last summer’s 12.
Brendan Walsh, senior vice president of partner relations, said that while it is easy for 1901 Group to conduct virtual work, there are benefits to in-person internships. He said hands-on experiences are part of the “secret sauce” of growing talent.
Neely said she believes next year will see a combination of in-person and virtual work.
“I guess the world will tell us, but we feel very comfortable that our interns can stay engaged remotely,” she said.
1901 Group works with the Roanoke Regional Partnership, which conducts programs to bring together students and employers in the region.
Erin Burcham, who’s in charge of the virtual summer internship program at the partnership, said there are almost 100 more participants this year than in last year’s in-person program.
But while much of last year’s cohort had part-time jobs on top of internships, many of this year’s participants have neither. Burcham said most students are participating mostly for professional development skills and resume builders.
Students enroll in the program from more than 75 cities and towns throughout Virginia and beyond – as far away as San Diego, California, Burcham said. She said virtual work has made it easier for non-local participants to collaborate with businesses in the region.
“Our hope is that as companies are interacting with students, they see how easy it is to do this virtually,” she said.
Colleges have also had to adapt, although in some cases, this has meant sticking to what they do best.
Toni McLawhorn, director of career services at Roanoke College, said the school has been able to provide many of the same resources.
“It’s all still sort of working the same except that I’m not making personal visits,” she said. “In normal situations, I would try to go out and meet employers personally and get a feel for the environment that the students would be doing their internship in.”
Most Roanoke College internships are now remote and very few have been canceled, McLawhorn said. Typically, about 300 students do internships for academic credit each year — about 15% of the college’s 2,000 students. She said she thinks this year’s numbers are pretty similar, but can’t be sure since summer internships are not required and therefore hard to gauge.
Virginia Tech has also found ways to encourage students to use the summer productively.
Tech students can fill an empty summer with virtual experience programs, said Becca Scott, associate director for professional development and experiential initiatives.
The university is offering free self-guided and structured programs as alternatives to internship experiences.
Elevate Experience, one of the structured programs, helps students with summer jobs to elevate their work to an internship-like experience through weekly virtual meetings and reflection on career skills and strengths. Another structured program named after the Virginia Tech motto, Ut Prosim, pairs students with alumni mentors and requires them to complete a service project consisting of at least 60 hours of work. LinkedIn Learning, a self-guided program, encourages students to build professional skills by completing courses and earning certificates.
“They all have some sort of opportunity to interact with employers,” Scott said. “That was our effort to sort of try to replicate an intern experience.”
Scott said despite the pandemic, she’s seen job postings continue to come through Handshake, an online platform that helps college students find employment and a major tool for Tech students. She said reports show 397 full-time positions and 88 internship positions posted since May 24.
Creativity seems to be a requirement in combating COVID-19 cancellations, and is consistent across the board among colleges, businesses, students and nonprofits alike.
“It may seem like a lot of internships were canceled and there were a lot of missed opportunities,” Scott said, “but there have also been lots of new opportunities.”