A Trial by Fire: How Internships Have Been Affected by COVID-19

Katie Hennessy, 21, a graduating fourth-year student at SUNY New Paltz. Photo: Erica Ruggiero

Edited and Packaged by Nick Porpora

This is it: Katie Hennessy’s last semester ever at college. Ever since she was a first-semester freshman, she’s been very involved in campus life. She became secretary of her hall government, then a resident assistant, then an orientation leader. Now she is the senior resident assistant of Minnewaska hall. Everything she has done has made her a great student leader, but she wanted more for her future. 

So she started looking into internships and found the perfect one, at Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson, a grassroot social justice community organization in the Hudson Valley. This internship allowed Katie to combine her love for politics and law with her major of communications with a concentration in public relations. On campus, she would go around and talk to people about the new projects Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson was working on and get signatures for support. 

Through her internship, Katie was able to learn new valuable skills through hands-on experiences and further develop old ones. Being a part of hall government, being an OL, RA, and SRA has allowed her to put on programs for her building, but she was given the opportunity to do so on a larger scale.

She said she felt she was “really making a difference in my community and learning new skills” for her life after graduation. 

Then came the pandemic. Her internship was put on pause, then canceled. 

“I was so upset to find out that my internship was canceled and not moved online like so many others,” said Katie. “But it makes sense because I can’t exactly be going up to and talking to people on campus during this time.”

Luckily for Katie, a communications major, an internship is not required for her to graduate. But the internship’s cancellation means she doesn’t have the work experience she’d hoped for before graduation. 

Now, with less than a month until graduation, Katie is panicked that she will not be able to find a job.

“This was my first internship and I was really proud to have something not school related on my resume. Now I feel like I’m back at square one,” said Katie.

“This was my first internship and I was really proud to have something not school related on my resume. Now I feel like I’m back at square one,” said Katie.

Although Katie’s internship has been canceled, other students have found ways to continue internships online. For education and digital media and journalism students at the State University of New York at New Paltz, internship and fieldwork credits are required to graduate. So students participating in internships for credit had to make the huge shift to online learning and practicing. 

Through internships and fieldwork, students learn how to work in their field of choice. They develop skills such as collaboration, oral and written communication, critical thinking, leadership, technology and management. Internships also give students a chance to improve their work ethic and professionalism in a professional setting. According to a 2018 survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 79.2% of students with internship experience said that their professionalism and work ethic were very or extremely improved.

“We do a lot of research around job search and career development of new college graduates, and internships are a very important piece of that,” said Mimi Collins, Director of Content Strategy of NACE. “Both from the career and development standpoint and from the job search standpoint.”

Additionally, NACE reported that 98% of employers deem that teamwork is very to extremely essential in a new hire and 85.1% of employers rate students as very/extremely proficient in teamwork competency. Teamwork can be learned in class through group projects, but is accentuated in a professional environment because the stakes are raised. Even 72.6% of students with internships reported that their teamwork and collaboration competencies were “very” to “extremely” improved from their experiences.

Graphic by Nick Porpora

Requiring students to complete internships and fieldwork in order to graduate helps prepare students for their future and teaches them more than what they can learn in a classroom. Internships and fieldwork allow students to showcase their knowledge of what they have learned up to this point and practice it. Most jobs require previous work experience and certifications that can only be completed through internships and fieldwork.

Each opportunity is unique and helps students accentuate skills they already had and develop ones that they did not. The interactive hands-on learning and professional environment allows students the firsthand education of how to work with others in their desired field. But now with the pandemic forcing classes, jobs, and subsequently internships and fieldwork online, how are students completing their requirements for graduation?

Because every internship is different and not run directly through SUNY New Paltz, students had to wait to see from their on-site supervisors how the remainder of the semester was going to go, said Beth King, internship coordinator at the Career Resource Center

“We have been working nonstop with companies and students about going virtual. Everything we were doing at first was very reactive as we had no idea what the government was going to do,” said King. “Right now we are being proactive in our measures to give students a hands-on and meaningful experience.”

The Career Resource Center has been working with departments to make the transition to online and virtual internships as seamless as possible for the students. 

“We have done a lot of damage control over the last few weeks and we had to get really creative about what we could do,” said King.

Additionally, the Career Resource Center is still operating as normal, but now all online. Students can still make appointments to get help with resumes, cover letters, interview skills, internship opportunities and more. 

Students in the Digital Media and Journalism Department are required to complete internship credits before graduating. This was always part of the plan for Theresa Figueroa, a senior. As a digital media production major, she has taken many classes to build her skills in editing, filming, writing and producing. 

Dedicated to learning as much as she could and putting her skills to the test, she participated multiple times in the semesterly Film 48, a student competition where groups have to create an entire short film with a specific character name, quote, genre and prop in two days. Her group, Dirty Chai, even won first place one semester. She still wanted more professional experience to put on her resume and on her reel. 

She found an internship at Hudson Valley Casting, an agency that provides both union and non-union talent for film, commercials, print, voice-over, theater and corporate events. There, she learned about all the behind the scenes of what goes into casting and how it moves the production along.  

Theresa was very excited to start her first internship, knowing she would have real hands-on experiences that she can use in the future. She helped her boss put on an Oscars party, sat in on casting calls, learned how to analyze scripts, and developed new technology database skills. These skills are all valuable and will help Theresa navigate her new surroundings more easily after graduation. Being there in person has shown Theresa more than she thought possible as she handled tasks by herself and with others.    

“I never knew how much work actually went into casting and this experience is definitely going to help me in my near future,” said Theresa.

She was really excited to see where the rest of her internship would take her. Then came the pandemic. 

With all the uncertainty thrown around the world, her internship was put on a temporary pause to figure out the next steps. A lot of casting revolves around in person interviews and auditions, so what was going to happen next?

Soon after the government decided that college classes were to continue online, Theresa started getting worried that she might be out of an internship and not able to graduate this May.

“I need this internship to graduate. There’s no way around it,” said Theresa.

It is one thing to modify a class to go online, but it is entirely different to move an internship online. The whole point of internships and field work is to gain hands-on experience by being physically present and learning by directly doing. How can a student possibly have a meaningful experience virtually?

The experience of an online internship will never be the same as an in-person one, but that does not mean that it is meaningless. While some skills might not be able to improve as much, others could flourish. According to an April 2020 report by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transition (CCWT), by completing an internship online, it focuses more on learning self motivation, leadership, management and digital technology. These skills are commonly used as modes for projects during an internship, and are enhanced by the focus on completing the project by oneself rather than working with others.  

Luckily, this was recognized by Theresa’s on-site supervisor as she switched gears to move fully online and bring the interns with her. Now as an intern, Theresa is working remotely and focusing on learning more about the online databases for her industry. For the remainder of her internship, she is logging client information into her company’s database, which is teaching her the software she will use in her career.

“Although I’m not thrilled that my internship is online, I was looking forward to doing more in person tasks than just research, I’m happy that there is still something I can do and learn,” said Theresa.

Graphic by Nick Porpora

While the switch to virtual learning isn’t ideal for many, it does not have to be completely negative. It gives students the opportunity to develop additional skills. Surveys were administered by the CCWT between Fall 2018 and Spring 2020. Based on those surveys, 37.2% of students who took an internship were extremely satisfied with the experience. On the flip side, only 2.3% of those students weren’t satisfied at all. Why are a large number of those students satisfied with the experience that an internship provides? It’s because they are learning the necessary skills to move ahead in their career and it’s very important to get familiar with your line of work early on.

Understanding the importance of keeping students as interns for the rest of the semester, Nancy Heiz, digital media and journalism internship coordinator and department advisor, worked nonstop to ensure the internships of over 90 students. This semester happened to have the highest number  of digital media and journalism and communications interns in the field. Over 20 of the interns worked on campus, which subsequently means they were canceled. Their on-site supervisors, along with Heiz, were able to creatively come up with work for them to do that will be beneficial for their future.

Although students who worked on campus had their internships secured, not everyone was that fortunate. A third of internships were canceled. Some were able to find alternate work provided by their on-site supervisor like Theresa but others weren’t so lucky. 

“For those students, I have to triage them. I have to say, who is graduating? Who needs to complete their hours,” said Heiz. “The college cannot just bend the rules on hours for the internship. We can’t budge.”

With this in mind, Heiz has been encouraging students to reach out to their on-site supervisors and ask for alternative work; such as making videos that can be done remotely, revamping company websites, and archiving information and videos. If not, then suggesting things that can be done remotely with their skill set that will be beneficial to the company to complete their hours. If that still fails, with permission from the department students can participate in online webinars and online trainings to complete their subsequent hours. She continues to work and (virtually) meet with students to help them with a plan that works best for them and their needs. 

“I’m still meeting with graduating seniors and helping them come up with a plan, and a plan that works,” said Heiz. “We don’t want students to be missing out on graduation if we can help it.”

Different internships serve different purposes and give an endless amount of meaning to students. This experience shapes who they are in their professional field and gives opportunity going forward. Sometimes, when an internship is over, a full-time job position is offered. Now with internships being completed online and many job offers becoming rescinded due to the coronavirus, the chance of receiving or maintaining an offer may be impacted.

Scoring a full time position after completing an internship has already been hard. According to a 2012 NACE study, receiving a job offer after completing an internship happens 60% of the time if it is a paid internship. However, the same study shows that recent graduates are offered full time positions after completing an unpaid internship is 37%. That is significantly less and just one percent better than recent graduates with no internship experience, which 36% of who get offered jobs. Now with the ongoing pandemic, how drastically will these numbers change? 

This doesn’t discredit the fact that still having an internship will help with your future. Most internships offered are unpaid and perfect to take just for college credit, which SUNY New Paltz requires for certain majors. Collin advises that job offers usually come later to people with unpaid internships. Sometimes previous unpaid internships lead to better chances of getting paid internships and then getting a full-time job offer and sometimes with a lot of job searching after graduation, graduates will receive full time offers. If someone puts in the same effort, professionalism and work, there is a better chance of getting noticed and allowing more opportunity to come to them. 

“Doing an unpaid internship would be a way to explore a career field,” said Collins.

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics Graphic by Erica Ruggiero

The unemployment rate for graduates with bachelor’s degrees aged 20-24 is 17.2% as of April 2020, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. That rate has increased significantly from April 2019, which the BLS had at 3.6%. Which, compared to the national average of 14.7%, it is very high. Before the pandemic, unemployment rates were low for recent college graduates at 4.2% in March 2020, and 4.4% at the national level. The graduates of 2020 were supposed to enter one of the hottest job markets in decades, only to have job and internship offers rescinded. 

Even though Megan Hyland knows that she’s going to be a teacher after graduation, she can’t help but worry if that is still a possibility now. With one more semester before student teaching full time, Megan was looking forward to doing her fieldwork part time along with finishing her final classes as a college student. 

Placed in George Washington Elementary School in Kingston, Megan was excited to work with an array of teachers to learn the best practices of teaching kids in grades one through three. At school, she was ready to gain the hands-on experience of what it will be like to shape the minds of America’s future. Megan had one full day at her elementary school and already loved how excited and engaged her students were in class.

Then the pandemic came and the government shutdown schools for two weeks. Not knowing what to do, she waited for instructions from her on-site supervisor. 

“No one knew what was going to happen, so I just had to wait,” said Megan. “Then I heard back from my supervisor that school was going to be done virtually and that we would have to plan my work accordingly.”

Every student completing fieldwork in the department of education has an individualized experience that is dictated by the school’s supervisors. So when schools started closing, Heather Finn, coordinator for the office of fieldwork experience at SUNY New Paltz, and her staff had to deal with “an unbelievable amount of work” to make sure that all students were able to complete their fieldwork hours by the end of the semester. 

“We had to rewrite the curriculum and their syllabus, and how they’re going to meet their student learning objectives; and create assignments that they were going to be able to complete to make sure that they met their objectives,” said Finn.  

The most important goal for the department of education was to make sure that all students would get to complete their hours for student teaching and fieldwork to keep students and graduating seniors on track with their certifications. Finn knew that it would be a difficult transition and experience for the students, but made sure each student had proper support and help to get them through the rest of the semester.  

Learning about teaching through a screen has not been easy for Megan. Instead of watching a teacher in class and assisting when needed, she has to complete modules, which includes watching videos of someone teaching and evaluating their practices and why they are effective. The grades that she evaluates online aren’t the first graders she plans to teach after graduation. She is now focusing on fourth and fifth graders. It’s a big change from the feedback and hands-on experience she would be gaining inside the classroom.

Megan’s now worried that she is not going to be prepared for next semester for when she has to be teaching a class full time all by herself with little help from the teacher. This was supposed to be the time where she really honed in on her skills and learned as much as she could before doing it all on her own. Now she is wondering if she will succeed next semester. However, her supervisor has been very understanding and supportive of Megan’s needs and concerns.

“I’m disappointed that I will not be able to help teach this semester and scared that I won’t be ready for next year,” said Megan. “But my boss has been super helpful and has been assuring me that I’m going to be fine.”

To read more about the COVID-ERA, check out similar articles below:

Anne-Marie Durkin sheds light on how it felt to be a graduating college senior in the midst of a global pandemic.

Nick Porpora dives into COVID-19’s impact on the movie theatre industry.

Max Freebern describes the story of two homeless women in Ulster County struggling to find housing during the pandemic.

Taylor Dowd provides insight on hunger relief organizations in New Paltz and Ulster and how they’re managing during the pandemic.

Erica Ruggiero

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