NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Sink Or Swim, Summer Interns are Making A Splash

Ah, these first fine days of summer break!

All over America, college students are heading out for Day One of their summer internships. It takes me back to my own shaky launch.

I arrived so promptly that first day that I beat most of the real staffers to the parking lot. I pulled into a spot, then reconsidered: amateurishly crooked. So I backed out for another try at perpendicular … and promptly thunked into one of the few other cars in the lot. Horrors!

Careful inspection revealed no damage done … until five minutes later, when I discovered its owner, who was to be my editor, had been standing at the window watching the whole episode.

Recovery after humiliating yourself is only one of the valuable lessons that summer internships offer ― but it’s a big one. There’s no better antidote for nine months of the tidy campus life, tidy not in terms of clean socks but of knowing what to expect, day after day. The surprises often last throughout the summer, starting with that parking lot.

Right now, bright 20-somethings who have spent the winter in my classroom are bursting out of spring semester like tigers set free from a cage. It’s a comfy cage, true enough, but utterly predictable and reassuring. They’ve spent the school year embedded among their own kind ― segregated among young adults much like themselves, who share the same concern for grades and taste in music. They’re trained for discrete challenges, each with a beginning, middle and an end, topped off with tangible proof of how well they’ve managed.

The “real world,” as campus denizens often call it, has no syllabus and no final grades. Nor is it populated, as a rule, by a majority of people who’ll look and sound and party exactly like themselves. Interning is a safari well beyond the segregated world of youthful students ― unpredictable and exciting and often hard on the ego.

The intern experience stretches beyond the well-worn end game of all those years of education. It’s a glimpse of what they’re working toward and the polyglot adult peers whose habitat they’ll soon enter.

When they report back to school next fall after a summer in the wild, I predict that these students ― lucky mass communications majors who’re getting their feet wet in media newsrooms, ad agencies and nonprofit PR ― will not only be three months older and wiser. What they learned during these few poorly paid months, they will tell me, will easily eclipse all the facts they’ve packed away in my class.

They will express surprise at this. They shouldn’t. No number of lectures, assignments and drills on AP style ever comes close to the chaos that their professional elders face every day. Nothing wakes you up like total immersion in an ocean of action that you’ve only talked and read about and imagined … sometimes better than you’ve dreamed, sometimes worse, and always dramatically different in most of the ways that count.

Back when I was playing bumper cars in the newspaper parking lot, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what lay ahead in the summer we interns were approaching. The seasoned newsroom pros would be serious and perceptive. The atmosphere would be measured and thoughtful. Wise, kindly editors would be oh, so patient as we wrote our first, halting lines, like the best professors we’d ever had ― only better.

They would tenderly guide young interns like me, gently easing us up into the baffling pace of headlines and deadlines. They would be gentle and supportive as they shaped and critiqued our experiences, knowing we were tenderfeet. They’d keep a close eye on every little bird as it tottered on the edge of the nest, fluttering over all the mysteries of the professionally well-shaped word … the secrets that I was sure were all that separated apprentices like us from the true masters.

Right. Like interns everywhere, we were tossed into the middle of the mayhem without a second thought. To our amazement, we were largely on our own ― started up and left to figure out the rest. We could sink, or we could swim … weighed down with far greater responsibility than we’d expected draped around our very green shoulders.

It was glorious!

And what mistakes we were allowed to make! Switching lists of births and deaths. Calling those we’d interviewed by someone else’s name. Writing silly, jokey headlines late in the day that, somehow, always found their way into print sooner or later.

Internships are a break from school routine, true, but they’re anything but a vacation. They’re a chance to work harder, move faster, reach higher and stretch. They’re a painless way to make contacts, and friends, that can last a lifetime. They’re the foundation of many a successful career as well as, for some few, a timely warning to change majors.

According to numbers gathered by U.S. News and World Report, between one-fourth and one-third of student interns, when they graduate, will be hired by the companies that tried them out for a season. They’ve polished their potential. They’ve proven themselves past the campus scramble for good grades. They’re tenderfeet no longer, and that much closer to success.

And they’ll never careen into a parking lot quite as casually again before checking who’s looking out the windows.

One thought on “NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Sink Or Swim, Summer Interns are Making A Splash”

  • Larry Gauper May 21, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    Given media is in an unprecedented role crisis, how does one advise new journalism/communication students on how to prepare for a career in an uncharted future?


Leave a Reply