Internships: How Late is Too Late?

by Jean Alves

Ah, 2010: a new year, a new semester.  If you stop for a moment and listen, you can just make out a certain buzz in the air at 150 Harrison Avenue.  It’s not the electric excitement of starting new classes, nor the positive energy of optimism and motivation that accompanies the year’s clean slate – no: it is, in fact, the quiet din of anxious fingers tapping away at keyboards, clicking nervously through organizations’ websites, and the barely audible whimpering of students desperately trying to secure their summer internship plans.

Okay first-years, shhhhh.  It’s gonna be all right.  If there’s any lesson to be learned from last year’s intern veterans it’s this: the pathways and timelines that lead toward an internship are as varied as the internship opportunities themselves.

The Early Bird Gets the Internship

Mari Pierce-Quinonez, now a second-year student in the AFE program, was the envy of all her friends when she appeared to have a near-secure internship by November.  She interned with the New England Office of American Farmland Trust (AFT) in Northampton, Massachusetts, a program she knew she was interested in before starting at Tufts.  “I was interested in farmland preservation, and I was in awe of the work that AFT was producing for some time,” says Mari, adding, “They were kind of my idols for a little while.”

Within the first few weeks of the school year, Mari reached out to AFT to inquire about working for them remotely as a work-study.  She knew they had housed AFE students in the past, and her then-advisor, Kathleen Merrigan, knew early on that the director of the organization was looking to work with another Tufts student.

However, even with early planning and strong contacts the process was far from clear-and-simple.  Though word of AFT’s strong interest had reached her through the grapevine, “it was hard to confirm this with AFT directly for a long time,” admits Mari.

Ultimately, she learned that while they did not have the money to fund her work-study, they could bring her on during a summer internship.  However, it was several months and sporadic email conversations before her position was fully secured.

“This [process] was actually kind of frustrating, because I was 75 percent sure I would be working for them, but still doubtful enough to send out feelers in other directions…There were definitely days where I was just as stressed out as everybody else.”  She was not officially accepted as a summer AFT intern until February.

Though Mari was fortunate to have cultivated a relationship with her advisor and the New England AFT early in the semester, even her seemingly ideal internship search was still wrought with anxiety.  Her determination certainly paid dividends in the end, though.    She loved her internship experience and knows that it has further equipped her for her ideal AFE career.

Her advice to those now starting to search for internship opportunities: “Agreeing to an internship so early is kind of like early admissions for undergrad programs – if you know of a specific organization that you really want to work for it makes sense to pursue with all your energy and get that contract in.  If you’re unsure, make sure you wait for some of the internship announcements to come out to fully weigh your options.”

Perseverance Pays Off

My own internship hunt turned out to be a real emotional odyssey.  From blind optimism, to escalating apprehension, to existential dread, to exhilarating relief, I hit every psychological rest stop throughout my first year in the Nutrition Communication program before finally arriving to the Quaker Oats headquarters in Chicago last summer.

Though I made contact with a few other organizations that sparked my interest, I was especially interested in working for Quaker because I knew a former student who had worked there a few summers earlier.  In addition to being a paid internship, it enticed me with the promise of free oatmeal every morning and complimentary Cap’n Crunch in every break room.

I contacted the Public Relations director at Quaker in January, the woman who had taken the place of the former internship preceptor.  She seemed enthusiastic when we finally spoke on the phone, and my interview left me feeling encouraged.  By March, I had received several hopeful emails, but still no firm offer.  Several weeks passed before I heard anything, and I had to email Quaker again, just to make sure they remembered I existed.

April arrived, and I got an email saying something to the effect of, “We’d really like to have you here this summer!  Just waiting to hear back from HR!”  Then a few more weeks and…nothing.  By this time, the Quaker Oats “Go Humans Go” campaign was in full swing, and I began to notice the Quaker man on the side of buses and on top of taxi cabs, stalking me, taunting me.

I had already signed a sublease agreement for an apartment in Chicago and I had no other B plans left.  The school year ended.  One week before my flight out to Chicago, I sent yet another email to Quaker to inquire about my potential start date and got in reply, “Still working on it.”  (Cue the existential dread.)  Thus, I arrived in Chicago with 3-months’-worth of luggage, a map of the city, and a busted sense of purpose and direction.

But, all’s well that ends well.  Around noon the following day, my first full day in Chicago, I got a call from Quaker’s PR director and was officially offered the job.  A week later, I was working for Quaker Oats: writing media alerts, blogging, tweeting, and eating my fair share of cereal products rich in soluble fiber and free of charge.

The Road Less Traveled

Take it from someone who has experienced the “worst case scenario” and lived to talk about it: there are worse things than spending the summer with your family, earning money from a summer job, and spending some time in the sun.  Now interning at the Institute of Community Health (ICH) in Cambridge, second-year Nutrition Communication student Jessica Hochstadt spent her summer lifeguarding at home in Miami, Florida.  Looking back on her (quite possibly last) summer vacation, Jess says she can’t really complain.

She started her internship search at the end of the fall term and was bound and determined to find an opportunity that would also earn her some money.  “I desperately needed a paid internship, [but] given the financial crisis that began last year, [these] were few and hard to come by.”

She applied to at least 8 different places in D.C., New York, and Chicago, and she remembers the application process as an especially stressful one.  “The anxiety definitely kept me up some nights,” recounts Jess

For a while, it appeared that a paid internship in D.C. might come through, and it wasn’t until May that the company decided that they could not justify paying an intern when they had recently let go of a number of full-time employees due to the changing economic winds.

“Although I found this out very late, I had prepared myself for the possibility of not having a summer internship by subletting my apartment for the summer and having my old job at home hold a summer spot for me.”  Jess says that, in retrospect, she’s glad things turned out the way they did.  Apart from enjoying lifeguarding in Miami Beach, the summer gave her an opportunity to spend time with family as well as earn some money to support her through the next academic year.

With the help of her advisor and Director of the Nutrition Communication Program, Jeanne Goldberg, Ph.D., RD, she was put into contact with the ICH where she began her internship this fall.  She now researches Body Mass Index (BMI) policies in schools.  “I really enjoy the work that I do and the people that I work with,” she comments.  She also asserts that last year’s internship search was a worthwhile learning experience.  “I learned how to search for jobs and had practice with interviews.  I learned that as long as you can prepare for a number of possibilities, things will work out.”

When asked for her take-home lesson for future students looking for internships, Jess replies, “Make a fall-back plan, and then make another and another.  As long as you prepare yourself for multiple situations, something will work out.”

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