For many students, internships are an important part of the college experience. The internship has virtually become a rite of passage for students nearing the end of their undergraduate careers, as evidenced by required internship programs at numerous universities. Academic advisers often have the opportunity to work with students before, during, and after their internship experiences. It is common practice for advisers to help students plan coursework so that students can participate in internships as well as communicate with students while they are enrolled in the internship. However, the focus of this article addresses how academic advisers can help students reflect on their internship experiences after they return to campus. The purpose of this article is to highlight the values of internships, discuss the importance of students’ reflections on their internship experience, and share tips for advisers seeking to facilitate student reflection.
Although “the college internship” is not a new concept, research suggests that over time it has become engrained into the student culture. According to Liu, Xu, and Weitz (2011), “almost 80% of all graduating college seniors have at least one internship experience” (p. 94). Such figures suggest that students are gaining early exposure to the workplace, but also that more businesses and employers are proactively forming relationships with universities by creating internship positions. This, in turn, may lead to an increasingly competitive job market in which the majority of candidates complete an internship experience. Thus, the undergraduate internship has basically become a necessity for college graduates. In fact, a 2005 study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported that “more than three out of five college hires had an internship experience” (Meier & Weeks, 2009, p. 95). A successful internship experience can certainly increase a student’s opportunities to be hired immediately upon graduation (Liu et al., 2011). Academic advisers can contribute to the value of students’ internships by helping them reflect on their internship experiences after they return to campus. How can advisers make this happen? They must first understand the value of student internships, the importance of reflection, and ways to help students make this connection.
The Value of Internships
A primary objective of internships is “to provide students with an opportunity to test abilities and attitudes toward particular material or career possibilities for the future” (Neapolitan, 1992, p. 222). While classroom learning is important, it does not provide students with real work experience to prepare them for a career after graduation. Exposure to the workplace environment is needed to bridge the gap between learning in the classroom and application in the work environment. Liu et al. (2011) found that internships as a form of experiential learning give students “valuable opportunities to discover the professional world firsthand and to apply classroom knowledge to practice” (p. 94). Internships benefit both the student in the classroom and the young professional in the workplace post-graduation. An internship may even help students decide if their intended career is one they actually want to pursue. Furthermore, “virtually all discussions of internship programs mention clarification of career choice as a major function and justification” (Neapolitan, 1992, p. 222). Helping students clarify and assess their career goals is a primary goal of internship programs.
In addition to providing students with real workplace experience, internships enhance student development. According to the Conference on Undergraduate Internships, “vocational development, intellectual development, personal growth, and community service” are the four major functions of internships (Neapolitan, 1992, p. 222). Students are able to gain experience in public speaking and voicing opinions to fellow coworkers. They are given the opportunity to observe the work of others and learn from their own job responsibilities. By immersing themselves in their internship, students gain a sneak peek into what their future careers in a particular field look like. Working in these real-world businesses and organizations gives interns “the career-related, job acquisition, interpersonal, and communication skills” that classroom learning cannot (Liu et al., 2011, p. 98).
While classroom learning and internship learning have their differences, they are also intertwined and relatable. Much of what is learned in the classroom setting can be applied to workplace situations, tasks, and activities. Once students are able to link theory from the classroom to practice in the workplace, they are more likely to be successful in both areas. According to Green, Graybeal, and Madison (2011), students with internship experience “appear to bring more to the classroom, link the importance of classroom discussions to practice, and demonstrate a significant maturation process lacking in non-internship students” (p. 100). Thus, internships help to create well-rounded students and professionals who enrich both the work environment and the classroom.
In addition to linking theory to practice, another benefit of an internship “may be a change in the significance students place on traits that are important to obtain professional employment” (Green et al., 2011, p. 100). Before starting an internship, students have preconceived notions of what the field will be like and what character traits will be important to employers. Gaining that experience and workplace exposure allows the student to determine what traits and characteristics are actually valuable when it comes to being successful in a job or internship. Internship experiences destroy the fantasy of preconceived notions and allow interns to learn more about “work and working with others, their own strengths and weaknesses as future employees, as well as the nature of their potential future careers” (Liu et al., 2011, p. 98). Once these personal, academic, and professional discoveries are made, they give interns the experiences and knowledge they need to succeed in class, at work, and at play.
The Importance of Reflection
Although internships are supposed to help students apply what they have learned in the classroom to what they are doing in the workplace and vice versa, these connections are often not made without reflecting on the experience. Kolb (1984) asserts that internship reflection “enhances a learner’s experience through a linkage of education, work, and personal development” (Stedman, Rutherford, & Roberts, 2006, p. 254). Through reflection, students gain an appreciation for the experience and self-confidence in their abilities.
Having a mentor or adviser to assist in internship reflection can help the student see his or her experiences from another perspective. Kolb (1984) indicated that learners must have “the opportunity to reflect on and observe experiences from many perspectives” (Stedman et al., 2006, p. 256). Encouraging students to examine issues that arose in the internship from a variety of different perspectives can help students better understand the actions, feelings, and reactions that occurred. In addition, this knowledge can help students reflect on better ways to handle future situations in the workplace. Allowing students to find their own answers and make their own discoveries is crucial, but advisers can play a pivotal role in sparking student reflection by asking reflective questions and providing encouragement.
The experiences of the internship can also cause students to become more reflective in other aspects of their lives, such as their duties as organizational leaders. Students are more likely to see reflection as a helpful tool once it assists them in their internship. If advisers are successful in their efforts to help students reflect, students will be encouraged by the results. It introduces them to a mindset of continuous learning and teaches them how to ask reflective questions (Capasso & Daresh, 2001). These skills will add to their abilities as leaders and may even encourage others in their groups and organizations to use reflection in their daily lives.
Ways to Aid Students with Internship Reflection
This section will offer specific strategies that advisers can use to promote student reflection. Since students often get academic credit for participating in internships, students tend to express interest in participating in internships during meetings with their academic advisers. Advisers should note in students’ files when they are participating in internships so that they prepare for discussion and reflection when they return to campus. Although a faculty member usually serves as the instructor for internship courses, advisers still have a role to play. For example, advisers can help students establish goals and expectations about the internship. Chapel (1998, p. 100) maintained that the adviser and the student “should jointly develop the goals for the internship and state them clearly so that everyone understands individual responsibilities.”
Once students have completed their internships, advisers should encourage them to make an appointment to discuss their experiences or be prepared to discuss the internship when the students comes in for their regular advising appointment. In planning for the meeting, the adviser can remember these three principles from the experiential learning literature:
- Learning should be relearning where students’ ideas are brought out, examined, and mixed with new refined ideas.
- Learning involves the whole person, i.e., thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving.
- Learning is a process of combining new experiences with old experiences and vice versa. (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Kolb, 2005)
These principles can be implemented during reflection to encourage the student to examine certain situations and think outside the box. Advisers would benefit from using these ideas to help students realize the extent of “the experiences they had and the potential impact on their futures” (Larkin, 2008).
Create a List of Reflective Questions
Advisers can promote student reflection by creating a list of questions to ask them about their internship experience. These questions should make students take the time to think about and deeply consider their experience. Examples of effective questions include, What were your first thoughts and observations when starting the internship? How was your internship experience different from what you expected? What did you learn in your internship that you can now apply to the classroom setting or to your daily life? What connections have you made between theory and practice? How have your career plans changed due to your internship experience? What skills did you acquire during your internship that you will be able to highlight in your resume, cover letters, and/or interviews? Advisers should discuss with students how they can use what they learned from their internship “to help accomplish their future life and career goals” (Larkin, 2008).
Listen for Inconsistencies
Advisers should point out overlooked interpretations to the student but avoid offering their own interpretations. Students will often brush off something as being insignificant when there may be more to the matter that needs to be discussed. For example, a student may view criticism from a supervisor as evidence that their work or project is a failure. In reality, the supervisor liked the overall idea of the project but can see that the student needs to work on time management to improve the overall outcome. Advisers should resist offering their interpretation of the event and instead ask questions that allow students to explore it further without bias. This allows the students to make discoveries themselves without limiting their scope or point of view.
Advisers should encourage students to be aware of feelings and how those feelings have affected the internship experience, as “emotional sharing is positively related to both learning and mentoring” (Liu et al., 2011, p. 94). Students need to be open and honest in terms of their emotional experiences with others, so encouraging emotional awareness will benefit reflection and understanding. Advisers can encourage awareness by prompting students to recall their initial thoughts and feelings during certain times in the internship. An event may have occurred that sparked an emotional reaction beyond what the student realized. This type of reflection will help the student to provide the necessary information for the adviser to “respond appropriately and give positive and constructive feedback” (Liu et al., 2011, p. 95).
Ask Students to Share Artifacts from the Internship
Advisers should ask students to bring in to the appointment photographs, journals, or any other artifacts they would like to share from their internship. This will keep advisers abreast of what is happening in the field and position them to effectively advise future students about what they can expect in their internships. It will also provide students the opportunity to further reflect on the internship.
Host an Internship Panel
Advisers can both promote reflection by student interns when they return to campus and ignite interest about internships among younger students by hosting a panel discussion event. It would allow students who have participated in internships to share their experiences with their fellow students. This kind of collaborative learning would lead to group reflection and hopefully encourage other students to participate in an internship.
Internships are increasingly becoming a necessity for graduating students to be competitive in the job market. Advisers can act as mentors to students before, during, and after the internship experience. This article highlights a number of specific ways that academic advisers can support students as they return from their internship experiences. Advisers are needed more than ever to help students reflect on their internship experiences and can play an important role in creating the next generation of successful young professionals in both the classroom and the workplace.