College students must meet numerous requirements during their undergraduate and graduate careers, including completing internships. Meeting these requirements can be difficult and time consuming, and the additional obstacle of the pandemic has affected many students’ plans.
University of Arkansas student, Luke Welch, is all too familiar with how COVID-19 has impacted college students seeking employment opportunities. “Gaining experience makes you much more marketable to potential employers and shows that you have experience in the real world and with applying engineering concepts to real problems,” said Welch. Making his plans long before COVID-19 was a concern, Welch utilized the resources available to him at his university. “U of A has several different websites and programs that allow students to connect to potential employers, so I had the freedom to reach out to every company I was interested in without regard to whether [COVID-19] had affected their internship program,” said Welch. “Of course, in a couple months, internship programs dramatically changed.”
Welch accepted an internship with the Boeing Company for the summer of 2020. Prior to COVID-19, the internship was scheduled to be in-person in St. Louis, MO, but due to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and health concerns from the company, the internship was moved to remote work. Through this transition, Welch adapted to the change in “location” as the company attempted to make the experience close to normal. “I was pleasantly surprised with how well the internship program was handled being completely remote. While it is difficult to connect with others over computers, there were several socials and events that encouraged engaging with other interns and full-time employees. This helped alleviate the negative consequences of being remote; however, I believe nothing can compete with in-person connections.,” said Welch.
For Alyssa Frisby, a University of Central Arkansas (UCA) graduate student, her program has unique requirements compared to other areas of study. Frisby is studying to become a registered dietitian nutritionist and since completing her Bachelor of Science in nutrition degree, she has moved on to UCA’s Master of Science in nutrition and dietetic internship program. “When I graduate in August 2021, I will have completed the required supervised practice hours to be eligible to take the Registration Examination for Dietitians to become a registered dietitian nutritionist,” said Frisby.
The internship program, exclusively through UCA, made minor changes for the summer 2020 course. “The 2020-2021 class of dietetic interns at UCA met virtually for orientation and classes throughout the summer. We completed food service management rotations our first summer and some rotations were completed in-person at a facility (hospital kitchens, childcare facility kitchens, food pantries) while others were completed virtually,” said Frisby. “My internship director made sure we received as much hands-on experience as we could during our first two semesters. It has been a great opportunity so far to see these adaptations first-hand and focus on how to be a registered dietitian nutritionist in these times instead of practicing what was done in the past and trying to make that fit the new “normal.”’
Welch and Frisby were fortunate in their 2020 internship experiences compared to other students. “My internship class was selected pre-pandemic, but I know COVID affected undergraduate students who hope to be accepted to an internship in the future. It was harder for students to find volunteer opportunities and nutrition-related job experience in 2020 because organizations were limiting the number of non-essential individuals in facilities,” said Frisby.
A study conducted through Glassdoor showed a decline in internship opportunities of 52 percent between March and April 2020 and a 49 percent decrease between May 2019 and May 2020. Many industries at the start of the pandemic faced the difficult decision of cutting internship numbers as a precautionary measure to combat the virus, and some are still adjusting their programs for the foreseeable future of the pandemic.
“My career plan has slightly changed due to COVID,” said Welch. “Ideally, I wanted to go back to [Boeing] this summer for a second year of the internship program. However, [Boeing] has reduced the number of interns they are having for their program this summer due to COVID, so I was not able to receive a return offer,” said Welch. “I am actively applying to other companies and seeking other internship opportunities.”
Businesses and students alike had hoped there would be more certainty in the coming months, but as infection numbers continue to rise, there is not a clear outlook for spring or summer 2021 internships. While many businesses are making moves to return to normalcy, there are plenty still hesitant to add new employees/interns to their workspaces. The Little Rock Zoo announced their 2021 internship program would be suspended for the year in caution for their staff and potential intern’s health. However, the Arkansas Governor’s Office Internship has made plans to proceed for the summer 2021 term with applications open through March 2021. The two organizations’ plans reveal the split the job market is currently facing in response to COVID-19. Without set guidelines, employers have made independent decisions according to the resources they have available for their staff.
Students must grapple with the implications of the pandemic and move forward accordingly. Some students remain on track with little to no impact on their educational/career requirements. Other students have had to alter their plans and grapple with the uncertainty the previous and coming months may inflict upon them. “I learned not to place my worth in the plans I think I have,” said Welch. “While it is good to have plans, if you place your worth in them, then it will be hard to bounce back when they change. Being open to changes and new opportunities will take you much farther than always keeping rigid plans that “can’t change.”’
Likewise, Frisby finds new found confidence in her future career and the experience she gained through her adapted internship. “Getting to learn about nutrition in an environment where elements are constantly changing reflects how the real-world really works and I think this experience is setting me up to be very adaptable in my future career,” said Frisby. “The experience has taught me to be both patient and proactive and that no opportunity should be wasted. It has also been fun to get to work alongside these professionals as their routines have changed because I have learned so much about determination and flexibility, and how to handle uncertainty with grace and professionalism.”
How the pandemic continues in the coming months may determine how students will need to prepare for the remainder of the 2021 school year. Vaccinations are currently being administered which could have an effect on employers’ decisions to move forward with spring and summer internships. Students can stay up to date on internship opportunities through university resources and employment-seeking websites.