As The World Interns

by Joe Thomas

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There are two Starbucks within a three block radius of my office. There are four within a mile. I know this because I looked at Google Maps.

The overwhelming impression most people have of interning is that of the haggard-looking twenty-something, balancing seven cups of coffee trying to cross a busy street, to get back to the office to spend six more hours in the copy room. Most interns could probably tell you where every coffee shop in a mile radius of their office is from memory, knowledge acquired during entire summers spent without doing anything resembling skilled labor, just so that they can put the company’s name on their résumé. Perhaps they get in with a big firm in New York or D.C., places where a intern’s stipend barely pays a month’s rent. Obviously every situation is different, and an internship can be a valuable real-world experience in college. But this stereotypical idea of interning does exist, and there is some question about how valuable that experience really is.

When I moved back to Atlanta from Athens in August of 2011, I didn’t have much in the way of plans. I knew that I was going to start classes at Southern Polytechnic State University, but little else. During my first semester at SPSU, two important things happened; I had an English composition class that reminded how much I loved to write, and I met someone who was a grant writer, a career I had never given much thought, but all of a sudden seemed like a perfect fit. These things stayed in the back of my mind through that first semester, while I quickly also realized that I hated my Construction Management classes, which was my major at the time. It’s interesting to think about the paths we take through our lives, how the seemingly insignificant or unrelated decisions have major future ramifications. If I hadn’t wanted to be a Construction Management major, I never would have gone to SPSU, and would not have had a class with a professor who encouraged my writing as much as Ms. Strauss, my comp professor. If I hadn’t moved to Athens, I never would have met Allison, and never would have met her co-worker, a charter school grant writer. And if I hadn’t gone to Camp Mikell, I never would have ended up at the Georgia Conservancy.

It is, by all accounts, fairly rare to get career-specific experience, at a job you care about, with people you like, all during college. My experience at the Georgia Conservancy has been representative of what an internship should be: good, relevant, real work that benefits the company or organization and provides practical experience in the intern’s desired field. In late 2011, I was introduced to the Conservancy by my friend Bryan, who I had met several years previously through various Camp Mikell parties. Over the course of a poker game at his house, I asked about the possibility of interning there, an idea that he supported. After a brief interview, I started in January of 2012. Over the last eleven months or so, I’ve gotten an incredible amount of experience in grant writing, member outreach, board relations, and non-profit development in general. This rare experience will be invaluable after I graduate, and it’s thanks to the progressive outlook on internships at the Georgia Conservancy. Almost the entire time I have been at the Conservancy, I’ve been an unpaid intern, but the experience I have will pay for itself in the future.

If you’re reading this and considering an internship, or work at an organization or company that provides internships, I hope this provides a little insight. For those seeking internships: don’t just take whatever is available. Ask questions at the interview. Find somewhere where you’ll be doing real work in the field in which you want to have a career. Don’t settle for a place that will just look good on a résumé. Look for an office with a good community, somewhere where you’ll be respected and the people get along. For those who may be providing internships: please, please, PLEASE give your interns real work. You’re doing them a disservice if you don’t, but you’re also wasting your own time. Internships should be valuable for the intern AND the employer. If you aren’t going to give them real work, don’t even have interns.

I had to use Google Maps to find the Starbucks. Every intern should have to do the same.

End-note: Thanks to Chris for the idea for this post! And congrats to her on her new job, you’re gonna rock!!!

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