This fall, University President Thomas LeBlanc is aiming to challenge the notion that students must get an internship as soon as they get to campus.
At a Faculty Senate meeting earlier this month, LeBlanc said he’s concerned by the increasing number of freshmen and parents who are prioritizing an internship as soon as they arrive at GW. LeBlanc said that while the University emphasizes its internship opportunities as a selling point for prospective students, there needs to be a greater balance between internships and existing opportunities at the University.
“I fear that our student body is not even really here,” LeBlanc said. “This is a place to drop their bags and head out to their internship.”
Addressing GW’s internship culture is one of LeBlanc’s top two focus points this academic year, next to addressing the negative effects of social media, he said.
Rachel Brown, the associate vice provost for career services, said the term “internship culture” stemmed from student listening sessions when some students said they felt pressure to take on several internships.
Citing institutional data based on a survey of students who graduated between 2015 and 2017, Brown said 68 percent of students reported taking an internship during their time at GW. Of those students, 71 percent said they completed between one and three internships.
“We are excited to challenge this notion, this myth, that more internships are better,” Brown said. “The quality of an internship is far more important than simply the quantity of internships.”
Brown said there are other ways to gain professional experience outside internships, like summer jobs, research and service opportunities. Students should be intentional about outlining their career plans in and out of the classroom so future employers see that students have “a solid education, professional skills and relevant experience,” she said.
“Through networking and career events, students have hundreds of opportunities to connect with employers and alumni to explore options, tell their story and make connections for current and future opportunities, including, but not exclusive to internships,” Brown said.
In interviews, more than 10 students who have landed internships during their time at GW said internships are an unspoken expectation of students once they arrive on campus – the product of a highly competitive student body.
Senior Sydney Nelson, who currently works as an intern at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the emphasis on internships at events like Colonial Inauguration and prospective student information sessions made her believe that interning was an “expected part of the GW culture” as an incoming freshman.
She said students who don’t envision internships as part of their experience at GW could feel pressured to land an internship without considering whether it aligns with their career.
“There’s often kind of a rat race when it comes to internships,” she said.
Sophomore Mary Clare O’Connor, who interned for a congressional campaign over the summer and currently works on Capitol Hill, said that while students should have a couple of internships by graduation, they should go at their own pace.
She said students shouldn’t secure internships just because they’re available to them and the jobs aren’t “the be-all-end-all.” O’Connor said students should also find ways to get involved with student organizations at the University instead of comparing themselves to others’ internship experiences.
“I think when you’re a freshman and you aren’t necessarily sure of your place at GW yet it’s more like, ‘oh, it’s the internship culture, I should check this box off,’” O’Connor said.
Student affairs experts said that while internships are a good way for students to transition into full-time jobs, making internships the norm at a university can pose an added stress for students who already face high expectations from their coursework.
Michael LaMarche, the director of career services at Syracuse University, said that within the past five to 10 years, internships have increasingly become part of the standard college education nationwide, allowing students to get practical experience outside of the classroom.
He added that internships are much more different than they were 20 years ago because interns have more responsibilities than the stereotypical coffee run. Depending on the internship, students are typically doing more hands-on work.
“Having that real-world experience is so different than being in the classroom and it gives them an opportunity to learn about new things within the business world,” LaMarche said.
Patricia Carey, the associate dean for student affairs at New York University, said that students should first understand how internships could enhance their academics before accepting an opportunity. Internships are only valuable if they add to a students’ education, which career service staff could “formalize into the experience,” she said.
“When students see that other students are engaged in internships, that does play a factor,” she said. “You’re not the only one having this wonderful experience so that does make a difference if when they have an opportunity to talk about what they’re learning on an internship.”