Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2006 | Features

Experience Preferred

By Grant Schulte

Immersed in her work as website manager for National Geographic Traveler, Mary Beth LaRue suddenly heard her boss call her into his office.

"Mary Beth, do you like it here?" She nodded. "I love it." "How would you like to come back permanently?"

A UI senior and mere intern at the time, LaRue didn't see that one coming.

More than halfway into a four-month fall internship in Washington, DC, at the nation's premier travel magazine, LaRue had been entrusted to solely design and update portions of the high-profile website after the chief Web editor quit. Thanks in part to her training at the UI, she was the only staff member with the technological skills to add stories and change design schemes. She'd also compiled a how-to manual for operating the site. And—because she was still pretty low on the totem pole—she'd reorganized the supply closet.

Trying to mask her excitement, LaRue nonchalantly returned to her office. Safely out of view, she jumped with glee. It was a dream scenario for any aspiring travel writer. LaRue, 06BA, who graduated from the UI this past spring, is now back in Washington, DC, developing a website she mastered during an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Such adventures beyond the classroom—whether in journalism, business, engineering, or other professional fields—increasingly occupy a starring role in the undergraduate experience. For many students who hope to land full-time employment after college, great grades are no longer enough. Today's employers expect that potential employees have already spent time in the workforce.

In an often-stressful scramble to boost their resumes, students spend anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months proving they have the right stuff to qualify as good candidates come hiring time. They dress as Goofy and Cinderella at Disney World. They organize paperwork at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, run errands for staff of the David Letterman Show in New York City, develop software, and design bridges. Closer to home, they scrape swabs across Petri dishes in labs at UI Hospitals and Clinics and file breaking news stories for local newspapers.

School of Hard Knocks

"Thank you for your interest. We received hundreds of qualified applicants. Unfortunately, you were not selected."

Welcome to the school of hard knocks and internships. That form rejection note proved the first of many. Along came another. And still another, all bearing the same message in the same robotic way: "Can't we just be friends?"

Finding the right summer gig is tough and, at times, downright depressing. Despite my experience on my high school paper and the Daily Iowan, rejection letters kept pouring in until a UI Journalism & Mass Communication recruiter helped me land an internship at a small newspaper in Washington, DC. It was the first of several summers covering dog shows and cultural festivals.

I interviewed Santa Claus and left a message on Jesus Christ's answering machine because my idea of an article about people with unusual names made my editors chuckle. Mostly, though, I assisted senior reporters and wrote mindless stories for Page A22.

I've never worked so hard for so little pay and zero benefits. I logged long hours and tons of grunt work, but I also loved learning from editors and meeting writers. Now that I'm about to settle into a full-time job, my five internships have prepared me for whatever comes my way professionally. Never again, for instance, will I just drive away in the company car without signing out. (By the time I returned to the newsroom, my editor was about to call the cops.)

Even more importantly, interning has taught me valuable life skills. Who knew it was possible to survive on cereal and coffee for three days straight?

The rewards include peace of mind upon graduation, vital networking contacts, and important lessons about what careers suit them best. According to UI Pomerantz Career Center records, more than 1,400 undergraduates reported completing an internship this past academic year. Angi Schumacher, the center's director of marketing and public relations, says that figure likely represents a fraction of the true number, since not all students who complete internships register them with the center for inclusion on their transcripts. Last year, Career Center staff facilitated some 3,500 mock and real interviews for internships and full-time positions. In addition, 4,000 scheduled advising appointments took place, many of which covered queries about interning.

"Once upon a time, students used to stand out if they had one internship," says Schumacher. "Now, they're completing as many as five or six."

Indeed, even before she landed the stint at National Geographic Traveler, LaRue had worked at Jane, the New York City-based leading national magazine for 20-something women.

Recent graduates like LaRue have faced a tighter job market and cutthroat competition for the few available positions. Employers expect new hires to bring multiple skills to the table, and they prefer experienced candidates even for entry-level jobs. Without internships, students' job applications will likely sink to the bottom of a sky-high pile of resumes.

As the Pomerantz Career Center website spells out: "The more semesters graduates spend interning, the less time they spend looking for employment. Internships typically predict higher starting salaries."

Various UI colleges stress the importance of these opportunities to their students. In the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, about one-third of the school's students find placement for the summer. The College of Engineering's strategic plan includes the goal of having 85 percent of students spend time in a professional setting before graduation.

Scott Salsbery, an engineering junior, opted to seek and build actual work experience before he even came to college. While still in high school, he started out as a "coffee gopher" at his father's company but has since moved up to the more dignified role of equipment parts designer. After impressing a recruiter at a recent career fair with his educated critique of Bobcat equipment, the Tipton native now looks ahead to a possible internship with the company.

"It was one engineer to another," he says. "That can only come from firsthand experience."

In addition to technical skills and knowledge, interns have to demonstrate other attributes that encourage employers to see them as permanent rather than temporary additions to the workplace. For some, this means adopting an entirely different lifestyle. In a sedate, buttoned-down business environment, they may have to don a suit and forego their class "uniform" of flip flops and worn jeans. They have to learn how to deliver a confident handshake or engage in polite small talk that puts clients at ease. Internships are essentially extended job interviews, where professional demeanor and hard work go a long way, says Jennifer Hemmingsen, 02BA, 04MA, internship and assessment coordinator for the School of Journalism. As she explains to the undergrads she counsels, "You just have to be smart when you realize you're dealing with grown-ups."

National Geographic Traveler's online editor Kathie Gartrell says LaRue's varied abilities, good attitude, and assertive nature made her an ideal intern.

"I never had to look over Mary's shoulder to make sure she was doing things correctly or that she was using her time wisely," says Gartrell. "She was always pleasant to work with. Some of the work that interns are asked to do is far from glamorous, but if they do it with a smile, they have a better chance of getting more interesting assignments."

Finding a great internship in the first place is not for the faint of heart. Apart from the intense competition for opportunities, students have to spend considerable time on their searches even as they juggle school, jobs, and extracurricular activities. They constantly scan postings on the Web or on bulletin boards and seek counsel from career advisers in preparation for recruiters' visits to campus (more than 100 different employers visit the UI at regular intervals to conduct internship interviews). It can be a difficult, ego-bruising process. Even a panic-inducing one.

As she approaches her senior year without an internship under her belt, Marta Petermann, a biology major from Mount Pleasant, feels that time is running out. She'd hoped to work in a lab, perhaps at UI Hospitals and Clinics, but nothing has materialized. Vowing to make a trip to the career center, she says, "I know I need an internship."

Some people would disagree. Despite the obvious value of these real-world experiences, critics say that liberal arts institutions are swaying too far in the direction of prepping the nation's workforce. Recent commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education laments that it's a sad day when premier liberal arts institutions—whose chief mission should be to mold well-rounded, enlightened citizens—go the way of career preparation.

Right or wrong, though, most students today probably don't attend college just for the noble sake of education. They want to earn a living, preferably working in a career they love. Nothing tells them whether they've chosen the right field quite like internships.

Brett Roberts knows he's found his dream career. The journalism and political science senior will embark on dual internships this summer. He'll work as a speech writer for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and also for the prestigious television newscast Meet the Press, where he will research shows, attend press briefings, and make host Tim Russert's guests feel welcome. Roberts has also worked at the Daily Times-Herald in his hometown of Carroll and at WHO-TV in Des Moines. As much as he'd like to kick back on Lake Okoboji after a tough year of studies, he knows summer is the time to beef up his portfolio.

The old adage is true, says Roberts: it's not always what you know, but who you know.

"Employers don't care about your GPA," he adds. "They want to know what you've done outside of class."