Knowing how and where to find internships – and what to do in the event you can't get them – can make all the difference.
In an ever-tightening job market, every bit of edge helps. And for young Hispanics entering the work force, internships can provide an especially valuable advantage.
Internships are about more than simply getting experience in a particular job. They can help young Hispanics and others learn to navigate the corporate world, providing an opportunity to benefit from professional mistakes that would likely be costly under other circumstances.
"We all know that there is a certain jargon and culture in an organization, and if one does not master that culture and jargon, one is seen as an outsider. Internships provide not just experiences, but also the opportunity to learn the way in which the corporate culture speaks," says Felipe Korzenny, cofounder of the research firm Cheskin in Redwood Shores, California, and a former communications professor at Michigan State University.
Internships also can provide an opportunity to rethink a particular professional direction – a little real-world experience being the best medicine for someone intent on a career that looks good on paper but really isn't a good fit.
"It allows them to make a more educated career choice," says William Gil, executive director of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) National Internship Program (HNIP) in Washington, D.C. "Many people think that they want to go into accounting, for instance, and suddenly they're in accounting and they think, 'I don't want to do this.'"
In its first year, HNIP placed 24 students in paid internships. This year, the program placed 446 students. Over the course of nine years, it has helped about 3,200 individuals between the ages of 18 and 52 secure paid internships nationwide and in Puerto Rico. Most of the internships are in Washington, D.C., in both the private sector and government agencies. Participating companies include Goldman Sachs, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Marriott Corp., and McDonald's.
It was through HACU that Emely Vela, a graduate public administration student at American University in Washington, D.C., received her summer internship at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the capital. She also has interned for the Office of Personnel Management and hopes to intern at the State Department next year. So far, she's found her experiences to be invaluable as she maps out a career.
"There aren't many Hispanics in professional work environments, especially in consulting. It's very important for students, before they actually start to apply for jobs, to kind of get their foot in the door to see what it is like," she says. "Because there aren't a lot of Hispanics, particularly in top companies, it's very important to help these students have access to internships and jobs."
There are numerous ways to find internships, from going to job fairs and contacting a company directly to going through a university, a program like HACU's, or a professor. The key is to network – and to start networking early in an academic career.
"Looking back at my undergraduate days, I realize that at the end of my senior year I started to be a bit more proactive in trying to figure out what I wanted to do," Ms. Vela says. "If I had to do it all over again, I would start much earlier in making my connections and meeting people and networking."
Now, she makes sure to keep in touch with former employers, professors, and fellow interns for future references and tips on opportunities. In other words, she's learned to build a network.
If a person is lucky enough to have her pick of internships, there are a few important factors to consider when choosing the best one. For people who want some pizzazz on a resume, working for a large, well-known corporation is the way to go, even if the internship entails little more than babysitting the copy machine. For those who want more practical job experience, a smaller company that may not pay as much but offers more responsibility may prove more beneficial. Mr. Gil generally favors internships that provide more hands-on experience.
"Some individuals only want to intern with Goldman Sachs, for example, or with the State Department – the high-profile names. But if interning there means you're only photocopying or answering phones, you should consider going to a small corporation where you do real work that's related to your major or minor," he says. "I always tell students not to focus on the location but to focus on the work and on making sure it's a good match. Short-term pain for long-term gain."
Internships abroad are another option. They can provide rewarding challenges, but they also entail difficulties such as getting visas, tax issues, and even finding housing and transportation in the event they're not provided. Mr. Korzenny advises many internship-seekers to stay closer to home.
"Working abroad is never as sellable as having worked at a major U.S. corporation," he says. "So if you can get an internship with Procter and Gamble or General Mills, if you can get in the door to do an internship with those major corporations, later on it's almost like having gone to Stanford. Internships in foreign countries are very difficult to come by. There are legal limitations and all sorts of different hassles one has to go through."
With the economy slowing, however, internships will likely become harder to find both at home and abroad, as companies look for ways to cut expenses. Still, there are other ways to gain the sort of real-life experience that will pique the interest of corporations come job-hunting time. Mr. Korzenny recommends volunteering at nonprofit organizations or, better still, starting a business.
"I encourage those who can't get an internship in an organization right now to start up a small business on their own to show entrepreneurial capacity," he says. "It doesn't have to be complicated. If they can later on show that they were providing services on their own, then that demonstrates that they have a proactive stance and also that they have the skills to sell their skills. That, I think, can be very persuasive to companies. You don't have to make a lot of money; you just have to show the initiative."
That initiative goes beyond just hustling to get an internship. There's a give-and-take between companies and their interns. Consequently, according to Mr. Korzenny, interns must be prepared to pull their weight.
"Many interns assume that it is the responsibility of the organization to make the experience good for them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work exactly that way," he says.
"The students from the very beginning need to know that when they have an internship, they must make themselves as valuable and useful as quickly as they can, so that the organization doesn't feel that they are just a burden sitting in a chair. An internship should not represent more work for an organization. It should be a rewarding experience for the organization as well."
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