Students look ahead to summer amid shifting pandemic conditions

Like countless plans COVID-19 interrupted last spring, students’ summer 2020 arrangements were derailed before many decided what they would be doing. This upcoming summer, students are navigating a new professional reality amid the pandemic. As vaccines roll out nationally, some employers promise to bring student interns back in-person, though many students are struggling to secure paid internships and jobs in the economic downturn. 

To the surprise of many students, intern hiring is only predicted to be down 0.5 percent for the summer of 2021 from last year. “The fact that expected intern hiring has not dropped off much this year underscores the value employers place on internships and their willingness to make accommodations to their internship programs to account for the pandemic, primarily by shifting to virtual,” explained Vassar’s Associate Director of Employer Relations Susan Smith. According to Smith, 1,785 paid internships have been posted on the platform Handshake, with 1,549 of them currently having no Vassar student applicants. 

“This year’s internship search was a lot easier for me compared to last year,” commented Ayo Opuiyo ’22, who will be interning at Morgan Stanley this summer as a software engineer. “I think [challenges last summer] had to do with me being a sophomore at the time and companies were mostly looking for juniors,” she added. “This year, I started applying for internships in mid-August and got the internship I’ll be doing this summer at the beginning of October.”

But other students say the internship search felt more competitive this year, and that fewer employers are offering paid opportunities. “I know in my experience most of the places I applied to have talked about how they received more applicants than usual this year, explained Sulekh Fernando-Peiris ’22, who will likely be working as a research assistant at the University of Cincinnati Medical School. “Most of my friends who have applied to other internships have faced similar problems,” he said.

Maria Ziaja ’22, who will be a sustainability intern at Tesla this summer, shared that she feels lucky to have received an offer herself, but her friends haven’t been as fortunate after applying to dozens of positions. “I also know that many organizations have closed all internship positions since the pandemic started,” she said.

Smith emphasized that while internship hiring as a whole has not significantly declined, certain industries have endured a greater toll. “The performing arts industry has certainly been affected by the pandemic, with theaters, performing arts venues and even summer camp programs being forced to close, but we are starting to see a limited number of internships and job postings in these industries (again, some are remote),” Smith explained. 

While any internship platform will display an abundance of listings, lots are unpaid opportunities. “It’s a challenge because many internships are unpaid (especially in the arts, entertainment, non-profit, and certain science fields),” commented Senior Director of Career Development and Internship Funding Aimee Cunningham. “Many students cannot afford to take a full-time unpaid internship for the summer.” 

The Career Development Office (CDO) offers grants and fellowships for students who have low-paid or unpaid internships. The Internship Grant Fund (IGF) is a need-sensitive fund that awards students grants for their work over the summer. The average grants are between $500-$4,500 and the CDO will award students over $300K in total this year through the IGF. The CDO will offer other field-specific grants this summer, including the Thompson Bartlett Fellowships for STEM and Economics and the Ellen Rudnick ’72 Student Entrepreneur Fund.                                      

While virtual experiences are widely considered less fulfilling compared to their in-person counterparts, virtual internships provide students with geographical flexibility they otherwise would lack. “I would definitely say that the opportunities available are more convenient,” shared Angus Bernet ’22, who is currently seeking opportunities in the film and photography industries. “Because of COVID-19 most opportunities permit people to work from home, and a need for moving and finding housing becomes unnecessary.” 

What’s lost in a virtual internship is the regular human interaction students would experience in-person. “Since the internship is virtual, the only real challenge I see is not being able to properly network with other interns,” explained Opuiyo. “At my last internship, I didn’t get a chance to talk too much to the other interns, so hopefully that’s a little better this summer.”

Ava Thompson ’22, who will be interning with Administrative Judge Christopher Sprague in Atlanta concurred, “I think this is going to be a challenging experience because I will have to be listening to court proceedings and working with Judge Sprague all over Zoom. Not knowing many legal rulings and terms, having discussions about procedures and certain measures would be better to grasp through personal interactions, as I have a better memory through sensory learning.”

Yet as an increasing number of Americans are fully vaccinated, some employers vow to give interns the traditional in-person experience. Ziaja shared that Tesla has told her she will be working in-person at the Tesla Gigafactory in Buffalo with social distancing in place. “Initially I was a little hesitant because I have some vulnerable family members, but I think it depends on what precautions my employer is taking,” she explained. “Also, I now know that my family and I will be vaccinated by the summer, so I’m not as worried,” she added. 

For many, the pressure of searching for an internship is an added source of anxiety in an already stressful year. “Unlike grad school applications or college applications, internships tend to be less responsive and informative about the process. I know many other students including myself who have applied to numerous programs and places and just not heard anything back at all,” explained Fernando-Peiris. “I think this alone causes a lot of stress and anxiety about the process,” he continued. 

Counselors at the CDO emphasized that students should not hesitate to reach out to them. “First and foremost, you don’t have to go it alone,” said Cunningham. “We can help you brainstorm ideas, connect with alums of interest and look for complementary internship resources to broaden your search beyond Handshake and VassarNet,” she explained. She encouraged students to make appointments through Handshake at any point in their process of planning for the summer. 

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