Jul 15, 2015

The value of 'experiential learning' or how to make the most of an internship

Among the exciting new trends in postsecondary education is the value of what has come to be known as “experiential learning.”  In a nutshell, experiential learning is “learning by doing.”  It is a means by which students acquire knowledge and skills from hands-on experiences outside of a classroom or traditional academic setting.

For those more familiar with last century undergraduate education, experiential learning may include any number of activities including internships, co-ops, community engagement, service learning, research, study abroad, and other creative or professional work opportunities.

And colleges are eager to promote the various kinds of experiential learning programs they have to offer on campus or off.

They are also quick to note those applicants who have used these kinds of experiences to learn more about who they are and what they might want to do as undergraduates.  In fact, there is some evidence that high school students who engage in experiential learning are less likely to change majors or transfer once they enter college.

And so savvy high school students are learning what undergrads already know about experiential learning opportunities—they direct thinking about possible majors and/or career paths, enhance resumes, and help develop job skills.

Among the most popular and accessible of these kinds of out-of-classroom experiences for high school students are internships or the opportunity to spend time in a work setting that provides some element of on-the-job training or engagement in a specific profession.

These assignments can be as short as a few days or can last an entire summer.  

Some come with stipends, but most are unpaid and provide other kinds of rewards such as ideas for science fair projects or opportunities to learn marketable skills.  With luck, a high school student might be invited to share credit on a research paper, journal article or patent. And at a minimum, there will be networking possibilities that could evolve into future college or job recommendations.

But regardless of level of responsibility or role in the organization, student interns have to “act the part.”  Make the most of the opportunity by keeping in mind these very basic tips:
  • Dress for success.  To be taken seriously, work on developing a “professional” image by dressing appropriately. How you look suggests level of maturity and how ready you are to assume responsibility. 

  • Arrive early/stay late.  You’ll make a positive impression if you’re ready to work a few minutes early and don’t rush for the door at the end of the day.  It’s all about attitude.  If you convey that the work is important to you, you’ll gain the respect of others.
  • Do your homework.  Get up to speed on the mission of the organization or the status of ongoing projects before starting.  If one exists, scan the website and do a little research.  Knowing what’s going on before you walk in the door will put you steps ahead of other interns and might earn you better assignments.
  • Set goals.  Meet with your supervisor at the beginning of the internship to discover what the expectations are for your experience.  Determine what you are expected to accomplish and make sure you check-in regularly for feedback to ensure you’re on the right track. At the same time, set your own goals for what you would like to learn and/or take away from the experience.  As appropriate, convey these goals to your supervisor.
  • Be aware.  Keep attuned to the culture of the organization.  Watch and seek guidance from colleagues and peers, while being mindful of how you present yourself to co-workers and supervisors.  Learn appropriate email etiquette and maintain a level of professionalism in your communications—verbal and written.
  • Check the iPhone at the door.  Your friends can wait.  Sneaking a peek at text messages or succumbing to the distraction of a buzzing phone will lose you points among co-workers.  Wait for agreed-upon breaks to post updates or respond to messages.  Better yet, wait until the end of the day and do it on your own time.
  • Ask questions and take notes.  The best way to learn and get things right the first time is to listen carefully and take notes.  Make sure you have a notepad ready to capture important details. And be aware that note-taking suggests to others that you’re unwilling to run the risk of forgetting something important.
  • Be friendly and upbeat.  Make it a point to keep energy levels high, acknowledge people, and be friendly.  View each assignment as a learning opportunity and never communicate boredom or displeasure by look or comment.
  • Network and develop relationships. Don’t be shy about interacting with your supervisor/mentor as well as co-workers and other interns.  Volunteer for projects and assignments.  Your curiosity and enthusiasm for the work will be remembered long after you leave.
  • Improve skills.  Whether it’s writing, speaking, editing, or anything specifically job-related such as learning new software or a programming language, consciously work to upgrade skills.  These talents will not only support college aspirations but may also make you more employable in the future.
  • Stand out through the quality of your work.  It sounds obvious, but do a good job and be on time with assignments, even if it means putting in extra time and effort. 
  • Take care with social media.  How your co-workers view your social media posts will have a huge impact on how they view you as a person.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because people aren’t “connected” with you, they won’t see your posts or photos—your social media footprint lasts forever and can sometimes be found in strange or unexpected places.
  • Ask for a recommendation.  When your internship is over, ask your mentor, supervisor or someone with whom you worked closely for a letter of recommendation.  And then be sure to keep in touch.  You never know when that extra reference or recommendation might come in handy.
  • Express appreciation.  Don’t forget to follow-up with a handwritten note of thanks to your supervisor or anyone else in the organization who helped make your experience valuable.
Note that most of these tips are applicable to all kinds of work situations.  Whether you’re scooping ice cream or providing a community service, take pride in what you do and how you do it! 

The contacts you make this summer can be the beginning of a network that will last a lifetime.

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