Remote internships: Planning for and supporting students

6 steps for making digital internships work so students can be "distance earning"

This semester, a University of Michigan student works—from campus—as a content strategy intern for a tech firm in Hong Kong. Another is a social media and community engagement intern for a sports industry entrepreneur in France.

Virtual internships are part of a broader trend in which more professionals work from home. Worldwide, 70 percent of professionals work remotely at least one day per week, while 53 percent do so for at least half of the week, according to a 2018 study from Switzerland-based IWG.

Even if campus administrators generally aren’t promoting the idea, many have gotten on board. “We try to encourage face-to-face internships, but we understand that the future of work may include more remote workers, so we’re not closing the door on virtual opportunities,” says Beth Pontari, associate provost for engaged learning at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina.

Some 70 percent of Furman students take internships, but only a few have interned remotely. Other institutions, such as Michigan, consider remote internships a priority.

“In the past year, we made providing virtual internships a focus of our work; we’re in the process of hiring a team member whose central responsibility will be managing remote internship opportunities for our students,” says Alia Orra, communications specialist for Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts’ LSA Opportunity Hub, which helps students develop their professional identities. “Alumni around the world serve as internship hosts, and the industries they represent run the gamut.”

The concept makes internships accessible to students who can’t take off a full semester, don’t have transportation to get to work off campus, or don’t have the financial support to accept an internship in another city or country. They can complete the work and communicate at agreed-upon times with their supervisors.

The host company may also benefit. “Many startups and nonprofits reach out to me [about virtual internships] because they lack space or funds to have someone report to work in their offices,” says Graciela Kenig, director of internships for the College of †¨Communication at DePaul University in Chicago.

Campus administrators who have coordinated successful virtual internships suggest these six steps for making them work.

1. Prioritize remote internship opportunities

To succeed, institutions must “prioritize virtual internships the way you would on-site internships,” says Michigan’s Orra. “They are opportunities to develop students’ experiences in equally important ways.” That involves making virtual internships a key part of one or multiple team members’ responsibilities “so that they are empowered to think of virtual as equal to other opportunities,” she says.

The LSA Opportunity Hub’s Global Virtual Internship program demonstrates the school’s commitment to remote opportunities. The program has grown significantly since launch, says founder Rachael Criso, who now works as a global internship consultant for Virtual Internships. “Each 10-week cycle saw numbers double,” she says. “We began in fall 2016 with six students, and in fall 2018, we had 30.”

2. Select employers carefully

Start small so you can “hand-pick” the employers, also known as hosts, and vet employers, says DePaul’s Kenig. That involves checking references and only working with organizations that have been in business for at least one year. “Otherwise, they are still trying to figure out what to do next; thus, interns get no guidance and sometimes have nothing to do,” she says.

As with any internship, discuss details such as payment with each host. While many interns are not compensated since they are earning credit, they should be paid if their work contributes to the bottom line of the organization.

Continue to monitor employers. “Some start very strong with the first interns and then life happens, so a third or fourth intern may have an awful experience,” Kenig says.

Tap into alumni, who are valuable resources, says Michigan’s Orra. “Alumni are usually the most receptive employers when it comes to providing space for students to develop and learn.”

Think outside the box on virtual internship opportunities

Social media management is a natural fit for remote internships, but it’s not the only option. Rachael Criso, who founded the Global Virtual Internship program at the University of Michigan and now works as a global internship consultant, based in France, for Virtual Internships, has coordinated remote internships for students doing a variety of work, such as:

  • Market research or market analysis
  • Blog writing
  • Journal editing (especially for international journals publishing English editions)
  • Data analysis for a blockchain company
  • Mobile app development

3. Require formal learning objectives

While employers can gain valuable work from skilled interns, students must “learn something pertinent to their career,” Kenig says. To ensure that happens, insist that hosts submit a complete position description with learning objectives.

Clear learning objectives and expectations are important for any internship, but may be even more critical for virtual experiences, says Furman’s Pontari.

4. Establish communication requirements

With potential time-zone differences and a tendency to be “out of sight, out of mind,” interns and their hosts should communicate regularly. Kenig requires weekly face-to-face, FaceTime or Skype meetings, but finds that both employers and students often skip them. “This deprives interns of two of the most essential elements of internships: timely feedback and mentoring,” she says. “Written feedback is never the same because it leaves too much room for interpretation.”

A college’s internship director should Skype or call the company supervisor “to establish expectations for communication with the student, which should be often and substantial,” says Joel Overall, assistant professor of English and an internship supervisor at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. “The supervisor needs to understand that the student’s compensation is the educational opportunity that the organization provides.”

Characteristics of a successful digital intern

Motivated self-starter: “In general, I discourage students from participating in virtual internships because much of the purpose of our internships involves developing a mentoring relationship with a supervisor or sponsor,” says Joel Overall, assistant professor of English at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. He has seen students who have participated in such internships get frustrated because they wanted more direction and interaction. Self-starters do best.

Prior office experience: Graciela Kenig, director of internships for the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, only approves virtual internships for students who have already completed some work in a professional, physical setting. Those who have learned etiquette such as showing up on time, resolving conflicts in person and working with a team can better appreciate how to adapt to a virtual environment.

Proactive skills builder: “As remote work becomes more possible and popular in every industry, the ability to work from afar with discipline and drive is an essential skill set for students to gain,” says Alia Orra, a communications specialist for University of Michigan’s LSA Opportunity Hub, which helps students develop their professional identities.

5. Provide training for interns

Completing work outside of an office routine and communicating well via technology demands a level of discipline that can be challenging for many students, Michigan’s Orra says.

That’s why students need training and direction before being unleashed to their remote internships. “We suggest students create a schedule they can adhere to, with a favorite location as their †˜office,’ ” she adds. “That can help them each of them create their own work life, whether that’s at a desk at home or at a coffee shop near campus.”

Students must also hone communication skills and develop a clear understanding of work expectations and tasks.

Another recommended action is double-checking with the supervisor, in writing, at the beginning of every week about upcoming expectations and tasks.

Finally, since conveying personality and warmth remotely is an important skill to develop, Orra always advises students to be very “present” when videoconferencing, calling or texting. “When our students do this,” she says, “they’ve found it possible to build relationships and mentorships despite the distance.”

6. Hold hosts accountable for students’ experiences

Accountability will help ensure a high-quality experience for students. When institutions place highly qualified, enthusiastic students as interns, hosts “quickly realize they are basically getting free, dedicated help in areas that they usually are not able to devote resources to,” says Criso, the consultant. “The more they give, the more they get.”

It may be important to establish ground rules and consequences to ensure hosts’ reliability. For instance, at DePaul, when an intern has a terrible experience or the employer is not responsive, the employer is no longer allowed to recruit at the university, Kenig says.

After all, successful internships are beneficial for the students, who get to learn through real-world work, and for the sponsoring organizations, which get extra hands and minds, and, possibly, well-trained future employees.

Nancy Mann Jackson is an Alabama-based writer and frequent contributor to UB.

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