Summer Internships During a Pandemic

How the Center for Careers, Life, and Service helped keep the experience available

August 14, 2020

Before the novel coronavirus pandemic swept around the world in early 2020, about 170 Grinnell students had planned to participate in career-related exploration or a service experience (AltBreak) during spring break, including 60 headed to Chicago on the largest industry trek the Center for Careers, Life, and Service (CLS) had ever hosted.

In February and March 2020, College leaders made a series of decisions due to the pandemic, including sending students home in the middle of the semester and canceling all College-sponsored travel. The implications reverberated through programs across campus.

During the spring semester, “we pulled the plug on everything because of the pandemic,” says Mark Peltz, Daniel and Patricia Jipp Finkelman Dean of the CLS.

What about summer internships? They’re a significant experience for students. How could the CLS still support students with summer internships?

In a typical summer, the CLS provides stipends for 130–140 students so that they can afford to take unpaid or under-paid internships across the United States and abroad. In many fields, especially the arts and nonprofits, employers can offer a compelling professional opportunity but can’t afford to pay interns wages. The CLS usually provides annually $300,000–$350,000 for students’ travel and living expenses for a full-time, 8- to 10-week internship.

“What became very obvious to us,” Peltz says, “was that if we’re going to support experiences this summer, we’re likely only able to support experiences that could be done remotely or virtually.”

How do you adapt when you have a couple of weeks to figure it out?

One way was by helping students speak with their internship employers about ways to convert the experience to a remote internship. Kelly Harris, assistant dean and director of employer engagement, created a one-page guide for students to share with employers.

“A lot of employers haven’t necessarily employed remote interns before,” Peltz says. For some, the decision was to cancel the internship. “Thankfully, there were a respectable number of students that were working with organizations who said, ‘Yeah, if you’re available, let’s do it.’”

With internship offers being rescinded, Harris put out a call to Grinnell alumni. “The alumni who stepped up were incredible,” she says. Some offered additional positions, and one alum who always offers a paid experience worth several thousand dollars, provided a second one at the same amount.

Since CLS could no longer provide students with funding for travel to in-person internships, the funding process needed to shift quickly too. The previous practice of reviewing detailed budgets for travel and living expenses went out the window.

“We went from students submitting a budget and awarding funding based on what they anticipated their needs were to a flat, internship award grant,” Harris says. “That allowed us to move through this process much quicker.”

Students doing internships from home were awarded $1,500. If they were paying for housing, then the award was $2,750.

For summer 2020, the CLS awarded $244,000 to 106 students. That compares to about 136 students in 2019.

Students could use the money to contribute to family expenses or cover incidentals, like a new laptop or upgraded internet access. “We allowed the students to use the funding in whatever way they needed to in order to be successful in their internship,” Harris says.

Many organizations reframed the internship experience and focused on projects their interns could work on, Harris says. “Our students love research. This is something they could easily adapt to, because our students know how to do research.”

Another difference this year — the minimum duration for each internship was 4 weeks and students needed to be working 16 or more hours per week. In a typical year, internships last a minimum of 8 weeks and students work full-time hours. Harris estimates that 60% of this summer’s interns will work full-time or close to it.

“If there’s any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it thrust the viability of remote work into the national labor discussion,” Peltz says. “We now have a grand experiment to really understand — is this viable? Is this something we can make work?”

Thanks to their flexibility and nimbleness, Grinnellians are demonstrating this summer that yes, remote internships can work.

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