Even virtual internships can benefit students and employers 

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The month of May traditionally is marked by graduations, Mother’s Day celebrations, and preparations for the mass influx of interns into Washington. But with the city still in lockdown and university dorms shuttered because of the coronavirus, far fewer interns will come to the nation’s capital this summer. A recent national survey showed that 39 percent of employers have either revoked internship offers or were considering doing so. Well-known D.C. organizations such as NPR, WAMU and Slate are among those that will forgo hosting interns this summer.

Though I don’t begrudge any organization having to make tough decisions for their bottom line, in aggregate these cancellations will result in diminished career prospects for some college students. For young people interested in government and politics, there is no substitute for a D.C. internship. It allows them to gain experience in a professional work environment, hone valuable skills, strengthen their resumes, and build professional networks — all in the city where many of them intend to spend most or all of their careers. 

And for those in the class of 2020 — who until three months ago had expected to enter the job market at full employment — the internship is doubly important, because it serves as a kind of “finishing school” before their first full-time job. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 59 percent of interns eventually were offered jobs in 2018. This year’s graduates face bleaker prospects, as many potential employers put a freeze on hiring and some may be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Plus, graduates may have to compete for jobs against more experienced employees who were laid off or furloughed during the COVID-19 shutdown. 

Fortunately, many organizations, including public relations firms, media outlets and government affairs shops, have found a solution: the virtual internship. In many ways, the fully-online internship, away from the typical office setting, will be just as beneficial for most college students. The nature of online work means virtual interns are more likely to be given substantive and meaningful projects, rather than being asked to make photocopies or run errands. For students from around the country who are unable to devote a summer to living in D.C., the virtual internship provides them with opportunities to intern for organizations located in the nation’s capital.

Employers hosting virtual interns will need to make some adjustments to ensure their intern program is successful — such as virtual check-ins and setting definitive goals and deadlines — but they will still reap the usual benefits. Since virtual interns will be out of the daily view of the office’s internship supervisors, the reliable self-starters will more easily stand out, making it easier to determine to which interns to extend job offers once the internship ends. When budgets are tight, virtual interns also may enable organizations to take on projects that otherwise would be jettisoned.

So, can the virtual internship model work? The involuntary shift to online learning came abruptly to educators this semester, leading some of us in the field to wonder if there would be market demand for online coursework and virtual internships this summer. But interest from students for a virtual D.C. experience has been surprisingly positive. Perhaps this is because, for digitally-savvy young people, connecting with colleagues virtually comes more naturally than for those who are used to working in a traditional office setting.

Case in point: My organization, The Fund for American Studies (TFAS), will switch to a virtual program this summer, including internships, designed to bring the best of D.C. directly into the homes of students. After we made this announcement, more than 60 percent of the students who initially enrolled in our in-person program chose to remain in our TFAS Virtual Summer Program, signaling that they recognize the intrinsic value of internships and professional development. And, nearly 60 new students have enrolled since we made the transition to virtual, suggesting that we are attracting some students who normally could not afford the time or expense of spending the summer in D.C. 

During these unprecedented times, we have a real opportunity to experiment with new ways of learning and working that previously may have been considered off-limits. Even after this public health crisis ends, organizations should continue to offer virtual internships as an option alongside traditional in-person programs. Virtual interns participating in our program this summer won’t be able to smell the fireworks on the National Mall or shake hands with members of Congress, but they still will reap the time-tested benefits of a Washington internship.

Steve Slattery is executive vice president at The Fund for American Studies, a nonprofit educational organization that promotes the principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership. It has sponsored academic internship programs for college students since 1967.

Tags Class of 2020 coronavirus shutdown Higher education Virtual internship Washington

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