Internships are a critical career milestone and learning experience for college students – but only if the opportunities match the individual student’s career goals and interests. In a small organization like the Erie Sports Commission, we are fortunate to have the opportunity to tweak and customize projects best suited to our interns’ interests – benefiting both their own learning experience and our operations.
So how can you ensure student interns find value in your internship program?
Make it about them.
It’s not about fetching coffee and filing papers – it’s about providing hands-on experience that students can take with them throughout their career, learning the ins and outs of the industry, and learning it from the best in the business: you!
Don’t just teach them “how,” teach them “why”
A successful internship program starts with onboarding. In our organization, that means a first day dedicated to orientation that details our operations and tries to paint a picture showing our impact in the community and greater overall industry. We present them with industry resources, organizational literature to review and an outline of projects to guide their semesters.
Detailed onboarding of student interns is especially important in sports tourism. Ours is an industry that creates major impact nationwide, but students are often unfamiliar with it. Host a detailed orientation for students each semester where you don’t just explain what your organization does, but why you do it.
On their first day, we use the whiteboard in our office to visually demonstrate how they may have contributed to the sports tourism industry themselves. Many of our interns played on sports teams growing up. We ask them about their experiences: when you traveled for sports as a kid – where did you stay? What else did you do between games? Who traveled with you? We estimate the cost of each of those expenses, and multiply it by many hundreds or thousands of athletes to demonstrate the potential impact of just one event, similar to those we host in Erie.
By speaking to their experiences, we get to know our new team members, and it allows them to better understand how the money their families spend on sports contributed to something bigger than they had previously realized.
It’s about the student
Internships are short in duration, and an organization often has a very limited time to acclimate a student to the team, as well as provide the student with meaningful opportunities and tangible projects that will help them launch their careers. A successful internship is measured by the experiences the student has gained while in your office. If we stress anything to our student interns, it’s that they should leave our doors with something in their hand – a project they brought to fruition, a bid they compiled, a campaign or program they initiated or otherwise. A successful internship should leave the student with tangible new skills and projects that they can share with their future employer.
“When employers are creating an internship program, they need to think about what skills and experiences they would be looking for in a full-time hire,” said Emma Kovacs, career counselor at Mercyhurst University. “From there, create an internship experience that can help strengthen those skills in a college student and give them exposure to as many experiences as possible. Students are looking for hands-on experiences that make them competitive when it comes time to search for full-time positions.”
Starting in the first week, ask the student to establish measurable goals that will guide their work during the semester. Let them know that this is a practice that all full-time staff also execute. Having documented, measurable goals, particularly for student interns, helps dictate their projects throughout the semester, and leads to a better chance that they’ll leave your office having gained what they initially set out to gain.
In our industry, projects move quickly and it’s easy to get swept up in the day to day. Do your part in assisting the student in meeting his or her goals by establishing them during the first week, helping them make them quantifiable, and putting them on paper. Use weekly meetings and a mid-term review to check in on the status of their goals, and guide students in achieving them.
You can also help create a memorable experience by using your connections to provide your intern with some bonus experiences. Create a list of special experiences you could make available to students, and ask them to rank them based on their preferences and goals (for example, it could include behind-the-scenes facility tours, job shadows with other sports industry professionals in your area, accompanying staff at a television taping, or being part of a site visit). Once you understand what types of experiences they’d find valuable, schedule them right away.
“Incentives are very important with student internships, and this includes real-world experience, college credit, networking and pay if possible,” said Eric Brownlee, associate professor of sport management and marketing at Gannon University. “Students often understand that their first internship in sports is typically unpaid, and this really makes the experience more important. They’re looking to be involved in tasks that are meaningful and will help them to improve key skills that will help them get a job in the future.”
For students, an internship creates an opportunity to discover specific likes and dislikes in a particular field, in addition to building a network and a resume. Many students entering the job market for the first time will find they are competing for limited jobs against other students who also have internship experience on their resume. Prioritize your interns’ goals, and make certain that when students leave your office, they leave with tangible projects that demonstrate their skills to future employers.
Make them part of the team
It can be a tough initial transition for a student intern to join a team of professionals. When you consider the familiarity that the full-time staff has already established with each other and their roles, the age differences between staff and students, and the fact that interns know their time is often limited, it may take a while for a student to truly feel comfortable speaking up and contributing to your team.
Remain mindful of this and take steps to make them feel like they’re not “just an intern,” but part of your team.
The pandemic has certainly complicated this. Before 2020, for our organization, internships included providing gear, taking the interns out to lunch or coffee regularly, and making sure they rode along on site visits, as well as the off-site experiences mentioned previously.
Working remotely has made this more difficult, but not impossible. If you’re still working remotely with interns, schedule time to host a check-in with all staff every day they’re working with you. Check-ins don’t need to be long, but they can go a long way to ensuring your interns know you haven’t forgotten that they’re part of your team. There are plenty of tasks they can perform remotely, such as writing or updating press releases. Take time to consider their interests and use them to involve the interns in projects and brainstorming – even from afar.
While many organizations may not be capable of paying student interns as they would full-time staff, there are other ways to ensure that your interns feel valued. Provide them with gift cards to local coffee shops or restaurants to say an extra “thank you” for the work they do, or with branded gear that they can carry into their careers, like backpacks or portfolios.
Create an internship program that is student-focused and utilizes the resources you have available to you. Success begets success, and when interns start graduating from your office to launch successful careers, word will spread. By taking an active and mindful approach to creating and growing your internship program, students throughout the community will leave your office and start their careers in a positive direction. SDM