How Students Can Adapt to the Loss of Internships Amid COVID — Interview With Dr. Marianna Savoca From Stony Brook University



TUN sits down with Dr. Marianna Savoca, assistant vice president for career development and experiential education at Stony Brook University, to discuss how students can adapt to the loss of internships amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

TUN: Dr. Savoca, thanks so much for joining us!

DR. SAVOCA: Delighted to be here. Thanks so much.

As you know, better than I do, internships are huge. Internships give students the experience and network they need to land a job after graduation. So, what advice would you give to those who lost their summer internship opportunities? Is there anything that they can do to make up for those lost internships so that they’re still hireable candidates after graduation?

It’s a great question, and I will start with, all is not lost, okay? Let’s review, really quickly, the reasons why internships, as you say, are huge. What makes them so valuable? Let’s go through. 

Internships give students hands-on experience performing work in an organization. There is a learning component to an internship, as opposed to a part-time job. There’s a networking component with an employer. And, lastly, there’s that insider knowledge that you gain about a company and an industry sector when you work in it that comes through both the experience and the relationships.

So, if you remove the label “internship” for just a moment, what are we really talking about? What is it that students really need to do to increase their marketability?

It’s four things. Students need to think about new ways they can:

  1. Get hands-on experience doing something for someone;
  2. Learn new skills or hone existing skills;
  3. They need to find opportunities to get known among professionals building their network; and 
  4. They need an opportunity to gain an insider view of a company or industry sector. 

Now, how do we do this? That’s the key question. 

There are lots of ways. 

First, internships are still available right now. Depending on the state the student lives in, they may be virtual still. But there are still internships. That’s so important for your viewers and readers to understand. 

Second, part-time work could be massaged to create an internship-like experience. 

Third, there’s community work, volunteerism, a passion project — okay, not paid — but still authentic opportunities. 

Fourth, there are leadership opportunities on campus or in your communities. 

And then, lastly, there’s the use of the alumni networks from your college and the opportunity for you to participate in alumni networking programs that can give you access to these things. 

There are still internships available. So, many summer internships were moved online. And, until we have a vaccine, many internships that exist right now will still be held online. So my question to you is, how can students make the most out of their online internships? Is it possible for them to still build networks and their skill sets? 

I should tell you that I had three internship programs running this summer at Stony Brook, all remote and all beautiful. I’m not saying perfect, but really good. So when I think about the things that we learned this summer from our students and internships, I’m boiling it down to four things. 

There are four big challenges to working remotely, and I’ll go through each of them. 

The first is time management, right? You have to learn how to use an electronic calendar and schedule everything — meetings and time blocks for your work. You need to create a routine for yourself where, each morning, or at the start of your work, whenever that happens during your day, you review your schedule and your priorities. And, believe me, these things also apply to remote workers who are not interns — who are professionals. 

To avoid distractions and keep your management of your time moving ahead, try noise-cancelling headphones if you don’t have a place to work quietly, and absolutely turn off your cell phone notifications. If you can, if you’re at home or in someone else’s home, try to keep the pets away, because they can definitely take your mind off something else. 

And then, I will say this: while I don’t personally use apps for this, there are lots of apps out there that my interns were using to help them manage their time. 

Okay, so that was the one challenge. 

The second is professionalism. What I would like to do is describe the differences between what it means to be remote in class, or a remote student, versus remote worker or remote intern. 

  • Number one: the just-got-out-of-bed look may be alright for remote class, but it is so not alright for remote work. Because, if this is all they see of you (gesturing to head and upper body) and they haven’t met you in person to know you that well, you have to present yourself professionally at your experience, even remotely. 
  • Another difference: Okay, sometimes we all snuck in late to class, slithered into the back of a lecture hall. You cannot do that in a remote work experience. You must show up on time. 
  • Number three: in virtual class, sometimes we have our Facebook, our Instagram, our Tik Tok — whatever it is that’s on your mind, socially — you have that on your laptop while you’re listening to your professor. We don’t advocate for that, but we know what happens. Let’s remember, in an internship, you need 100 percent attention, because you want 100 percent of all of that learning that you can get from those people with whom you engage. 
  • Lastly, on professionalism — and this is a big one — in school, you could get a C+, and that’s a passing grade. Not at work. You have to bring your A-game to work every day, even in a virtual environment. Those are some good things to remember. 

So, I reviewed time management and professionalism. I’ve got two more. 

The third is communication. We mentioned a little bit of how you visually communicate — how you look on your video call. It’s certainly what’s visible — what you’re wearing — but it’s also your facial expressions. Do you look like you’re an enthusiastic participant in the conversation? Are you nodding when somebody else is speaking? Are you smiling? Do you look interested?

Now, that’s also important when you’re face-to-face in a meeting, but it’s really important when you’re virtual because the rest of you cannot be seen. The rest of your body language and your enthusiasm is only displayed here (gesturing to face). So, that is a form of communication: your visuals and your enthusiasm through your voice. 

And then the second aspect of communication is so important because it relates to your ability to be clear with your supervisor and your supervisor’s ability to be clear with you about your deliverables, your deadlines and aspects of the project. 

So, in a face-to-face world, I can just run into their office for five seconds. You can’t do that here. So, in virtual work, we have to be extremely clear to communicate our progress, our questions and our concerns. Don’t assume anything. Ask questions. Review deadlines. In fact, asking for help is super important when you’re working virtually, because you can’t just find somebody next to you and say, “hey.” 

You may be working by yourself, but you’re not alone. You have to remember that you need to communicate with your peers, your teammates, your supervisor and other people in your organization about the work you’re producing. 

The fourth challenge of working remotely is relationship building. When we’re face-to-face, we can bump into each other getting coffee on our way to the cafeteria for lunch, if your organization has one of those. Or, we might even go to lunch together. 

The thing I miss most about face-to-face is that I don’t have those five minutes before meetings begin to say, “Hey, Jackson, how was your weekend? What’s happening for you? 

There’s no serendipity in virtual work, so we have to plan for that. It’s not difficult. It just takes effort. So, instead of assuming you’re going to bump into somebody, ask for 20-minute coffee dates. You don’t have to drink coffee. You can drink tea. You can drink water. You don’t have to drink anything. You could ask for a 20-minute networking meeting. You could send follow-up notes and thank-you notes — little brief ones, not big long reports. You could share resources with people in your organization. You could make introductions for others. And, so, you could use your knowledge of how to build relationships to help others build relationships with you and other people. 

For those who want to get internships, how should they go about that? A lot of students do it independently. They use search engines to find internships. But, where can they seek help? Who will that help come from?

I love self-motivated, independent go-getters. However, every student can do this. For those students who are starting with the search engines, okay, why not? Use all of your resources. But since we are talking about college students looking for internships, I can tell you this: I have never heard of a college that does not have a person on the campus whose job it is to help you. Sometimes that person sits in a department like mine, which is a career center. We exist to help you do that. 

But, sometimes, your professors are who can help you with that. Sometimes it’s your coach, if you’re part of a sports organization, or an adviser, if you’re part of an academic or a support program. There are people at every college and university whose job it is to help you. 

So what I would say is this: you do not have to know exactly what you want. You have to have a sense of direction, but you do not have to have it all figured out. 

And then, just start asking questions. If you’re a person who is not a fan of just asking random people questions, search your college’s website. Type in “internships” in your college search bar. Look for words like “career center” and “internship office.” Look at your academic department. 

Sometimes our science majors forget that an internship in science is often labeled research. So, it might not even be called “internship.” So that’s where you want to ask for the help that your college provides and ask for help in other places too. 

A lot of our college students have other people in their networks — their families, their friends, their communities and their churches or other religious organizations — who can be resources for them. There are absolutely opportunities out there. 

Check TUN’s interview with V’Rhaniku Haynes, the interim director of experiential learning at the University of Central Florida, for further advice on how students can find internships.

You and I have spoken the past about the benefits of overcoming uncertainty. Overcoming uncertainty can alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety, and that can help people think more clearly and accomplish the goals they’ve set out to accomplish. So my question to you is how can students learn to manage the feelings of uncertainty that they’re feeling right now? 

Yeah, well you can’t eliminate them. So, you said the magic word. You have to manage that. I have to manage that. Every person has to manage that. And, especially now in this crazy COVID-work world. We really don’t know what is going to happen next. 

What I practice, and I will share with you, is this. Think of a circle, okay? I’ll call this — it’s not my term —  the “circle of control.” Outside the circle, if you write it, type it or envision it, are all those things I cannot control. I cannot control the economy. I cannot control the global pandemic. I cannot control the company, the hiring manager or the weather. I cannot control another person. 

So, try to keep those things outside your circle — outside of the front of your mind. And, forgive me, I would reduce the number of hours I spend watching the news that tell you all about these awful things happening that nobody can control. It is just a little mental health tip. 

But then let’s go into the center of the circle. This is where you put the things that you can control or reasonably control. That’s all about you. You can control the time you allocate in your calendar to doing this career stuff. You can control the effort that you put in to search for opportunities or utilize the resources that you either find on your own or that you get from your college and your peers and your contacts. You can control the way you carry yourself, the way you communicate and the professionalism — that we talked about earlier — that you display when interacting with other people. 

Do your best to find ways to focus most of your energy and most of your mental brainpower on those things that you can actually affect and impact. That will help you not only move ahead, but you’ll then be able to help others do the same thing. And, in this environment, we really have to help each other, not just be lone wolves. We really have to bring others with us in this journey. 

Thank you very much, Dr. Savoca, for taking the time to talk with us today. 

Thank you. 

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.

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