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Friday, May 14, 2021

Student internships changing due to COVID-19

Shutdowns drastically shifted educational plans

By Shannon Steffens

Haley Cable, fourth-year student and marketing major, sits on the stairs in front of Old Main. Cable’s spring internship moved from in-person to online amid shutdowns. // Photo courtesy of Haley Cable
Haley Cable, fourth-year student and marketing major, sits on the stairs in front of Old Main. Cable’s spring internship moved from in-person to online amid shutdowns. // Photo courtesy of Haley Cable

Haley Cable, a fourth-year student and marketing major, secured her internship at the Western Alumni Association in early March, just before COVID-19 led the university and many businesses to cease in-person operations. 

As a social media marketing intern, her job description suddenly changed. She was originally going to post on the Alumni Association’s social media platforms about on-campus events to keep alumni up to date. Then, out of nowhere, there were no more on-campus events. 

Many local internships were either canceled or altered during spring quarter due to the state government’s regulations for COVID-19

“It was interesting in the ways that it was limiting, but it was also very interesting in the ways that it opened things up for people,” said Nancy Mullane, a human services professor at Western who led four internship classes during spring quarter. 

Internships are an important way to gain experience in a student’s field, according to a 2017-2018 report on graduate outcomes. The report found that Western graduates with internship experience had a 9% greater rate of employment and 20% higher wages than graduates without internship experience. 

“[Internships] can save a lot of time after graduation because they give students the opportunity to explore the field and get an introduction to it while they’re still students,” said Effie Eisses, director of WWU’s Career Services Center

While online internships help students gain experience and demonstrate their flexibility, Eisses said the lack of opportunity to make personal connections with coworkers is a significant downside. 

Mullane said the number of hours required for interns was reduced from 120 to 90 hours for her human services internship class. Due to the circumstances, she said it was a necessary change.

There are two types of internships in the human services field: direct service (e.g., working with foster youth) and indirect service (e.g., doing policy work). Luckily, many of the agencies that students were set to intern with were able to have the students do indirect service work. Some interns, however, had their internships canceled because of the shutdowns. 

Mullane worked with students who couldn’t get into an agency for spring quarter. Mullane said she worked with them individually to create training programs that would work for them. 

Overall, Mullane said things went smoothly considering the circumstances. There were even some added benefits in being able to connect with others across distances. 

“People got to share ideas from across programs, so it wasn’t limited to just who you were in class with,” Mullane said. “Somebody from Kitsap County might be working with trafficking in a way that somebody from Bellingham would be interested in finding out about.” 

Cat Armstrong Soule, a finance and marketing professor at Western, led two marketing internship classes during spring quarter. 

“From looking at the interns’ portfolios and the work that they did in the spring, I would say it was pretty comparable [to other quarters],” Armstrong Soule said. “I didn’t have very many, if any, interns saying that the experience wasn’t as valuable as they thought it was going to be.” 

Marketing internships that span quarters are common, and COVID-19 closures changed them as well as the single-quarter internships. 

Armstrong Soule said she had several interns who had been working for months that were affected by changes and closures. Some of them had to decide to stop interning due to their responsibilities changing entirely.

Armstrong Soule noted the decline in local internship opportunities for summer as well. 

Despite this, Armstrong Soule said the regulations opened up the possibility for students to compete for positions across the country. However, due to the suddenness and unpredictability of the pandemic, Armstrong Soule said not a lot of students were able to take advantage of the opportunity.

Cable’s internship was easily able to transfer online and continue through the summer. However, she is working fewer hours than she planned, and has run into a couple of problems. 

“I just feel like I’ve never become super confident in what I’m doing because I’m doing it all by myself,” Cable said.. “I can’t just be in the office and go up to my boss and ask. I have to write an email and wait for a response. I just feel like I’m always having to write stuff out.” 

Cable said she is grateful to still have an internship despite the shutdowns. She interned in person with the Bellingham Bells baseball team in summer 2019, which led her to reflect on both internship experiences. 

“They’re both equally as valuable; obviously I’m not happy about being online, but I think it has opened up my eyes to all I could do in the future,” Cable said.

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