Building real-world work experience while getting a degree can raise your skills, your eventual salary, and your chances of landing a rewarding full-time job you want after college
By Sonja Crosby
Let’s get one thing straight: I do not believe in regrets. To regret anything is to resent some of the life experiences that make us who we are. But while I do not believe in regrets, I do acknowledge certain missteps I have taken, one of which was not undertaking an internship. I did not do so because I did not recognize the positive impact an internship could have had on my professional career. In addition to job experience, an internship might have helped me realize a lot sooner than I did that waiting tables, selling women’s clothes, or counting frozen hamburger patties in giant walk-in freezers were not the kinds of job experiences that made a collegian an outstanding candidate for an important job. Of course, hindsight is 20/20. So maybe, by peering back in time through my eyes, you can see the importance of an internship and avoid a misstep.
I still remember the cloud I floated on after receiving my undergraduate degree. If I could have placed my degree on a ribbon and worn it around my neck like an Olympic gold medal, I would have done so. Armed with my résumé, I was ready to face the world with a renewed sense of validation and self-importance. Several months and two resume paper-changes after saying to the world of employment, “OK, come and get me!” I was still hearing the same question from potential employers, “Do you have experience?” Without that experience, I became just another college graduate working full time in a large department store. For three years, I helped dress other college graduates in their new gray interview suits, wondering whether they had discovered the keys to success or whether they would eventually become my co-workers in the Better Sports-wear Department.
Sound familiar? As a human resources professional for the past decade, I am still amazed to see how many recent college graduates apply for positions for which they are not qualified, thinking that a degree alone will gain them easy access to their chosen professions. So how do you get experience if no one will give them the chance to acquire the experience?
Of course you now know the answer is internships. Internships are as close to you as your campus career-services office or a mouse click away. Sites offering internship opportunities to college students include The Washington Center For Intern-ships and Academic Seminars atwww.twc.edu and Internships.com. With diversity revered in the work world, internships for minority students are readily available, now more than ever.
Degree + Plus Experience
A degree will certainly open some doors, but if you couple it with practical hands-on experience, a veritable floodgate of opportunities will present themselves
Let me stop here for a moment to address those of you who may be thinking, why bother with working toward a college degree at all if the work experience is so important? Before you trade in your campus meal card and discard your yellow highlighters, please consider some important facts. Employees with college degrees still earn salaries that outpace their non-degreed counterparts. According to a 1998 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, an employee with a bachelor’s degree earned on average $40,478, and an employee with a master’s degree earned approximately $51,183. Compare those averages to the $22,898 an employee with just a high school diploma earns.
Bert J. Hash Jr. of the African American Credit Union Coalition (AACUC), puts it this way, “Clearly it is important to finish college and receive your degree, because once you earn the paper, you are in the ballpark for life.” He goes on to say, “But with a degree and the experience you are gaining through internships, you will increase your career options tenfold.”
Ardenia Myrick, Internship Coordinator for Morgan State University, also sings the praises of internship opportunities for college students. Ms. Myrick, who is responsible for placing interns at companies such as Hormel, CorpOne and Pfizer, to name a few, explains the importance of education and experience. “Internships provide an invaluable opportunity for students to observe, experience and participate in the day-to-day activities of an organization. The internship experience can introduce, validate or eliminate a career choice. Internships offer a realistic career preview that can be explained but not simulated in the classroom, such as the intangibles of corporate culture. Students typically return from the experience more mature, focused, and confident, all of which make them greater assets to potential employers upon graduation.”
What Bert Hash, Ardenia Myrick and other proponents of internships understand is that in today’s marketplace, where change tends to happen at a dizzying pace, college students and recent graduates must somehow learn to navigate the often times confusing process of acquiring a job. The critical skills needed to build a leading-edge career include the ability to be flexible and adaptable and to have a commitment to lifelong learning. A degree will certainly open some doors, but if you couple it with practical hands-on experience, a veritable floodgate of opportunities will present themselves to you. The question then becomes will you sink or swim?
Minority Student Internship Programs Can Help Build Business Diversity
Karen S. Aumen is the President and Owner of the interior architectural design firm, Michael Asner Associates, Inc. For years, her firm has hired interns as a way for students to gain practical knowledge while they study. “Our goal is to hire interns not to do busy work, but to actually gain practical experience. The internship should be beneficial for both the student as well as for the organization.”
Ms. Aumen acknowledges that she has had a hard time recruiting minorities in the growing field of interior design.
“Of course I am looking to hire the most qualified candidate, but I would like to see more minority students consider this industry. In a field that relies on not only technical skills but artistic and cultural influences, a diverse workforce is considered to be a tremendous asset.” Ms Aumen goes on to say, ” As the economy continues to grow, you will see many new urban renewal projects. This will snowball into a need for more architects and designers.” Designers with a degree and intern experience can expect to earn at least $35,000 to start.
One example of an internship program that is working to make a difference in the lives of minority students is AACUC’s, Reaching Toward the Future Internship Program. Having recently joined the five-year old organization, I was impressed with the goal of the AACUC Internship Committee to promote awareness of and opportunities for working in a credit union for African-American and African students attending colleges and universities. Over the past four years, the AACUC has placed ninety-seven interns in credit unions around the country, including Seattle, Atlanta, New York and St. Louis. Committee Chairperson and CEO of Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore (MECU), Bert J. Hash Jr. firmly believes that interns acquire the essential skills that will open the doors to their desired career paths.
Former AACUC intern Evonne Gibson could not agree more. In Spring 2003, Evonne was a semester away from graduating from Frostburg State University. Although her dream of finally attaining her Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration was coming to fruition, one goal still eluded her: finding a position in Human Resources. It was not until she had been accepted into the AACUC Internship program that she finally got the break she had been seeking. As the first intern to work in the HR department at Aberdeen Proving Ground Credit Union (APGCU), Evonne was responsible for providing administrative support to the rest of the team. To say that Ms. Gibson made a positive first impression with management at the credit union might be somewhat of an understatement. After graduation, she was asked to stay on temporarily while another employee took maternity leave. Within a few months Evonne had parlayed a temporary opportunity into a full-time career by accepting the position of Staffing Recruiter, a position created for her.
Of Interest from the Career Center
Sonja Crosby is a human-resources professional at Municipal Employees Credit Union of Baltimore, Inc. This article originally ran in our sister publication, THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Online, which also publishes career advice, and internship and job opportunity information for diverse students.