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At Least Once: The Art of the Social Sector Internship

Posted March 21, 2014 in News

By Xiangyu Ma ’17

If you are the ambitious driven finance/consulting/accounting/government CMC-archetype, you probably already have this and the subsequent summers all planned out. An internship here, an internship there, all of which leads up eventually to that nice job you have always thought you have wanted since you were eighteen or so. But as you do what you want, there is a chance you have, consciously or unconsciously, overlooked an opportunity on the horizon: the social-sector internship. The short of it is that you should not, because you would be missing out. You should give it a try. You pick up a range of soft skills for a start. This is not a rule, per se, but the organizations that you work within the social-sector tend to be smaller. Ms. Diane Seder, the Director of the Career Services Center, says that students can work this smallness to their advantage.

“These [social-sector internships] are internships that tend to develop on the fly. They change based on the skills of the intern, on the needs of the company during the moment in time, so there’s a lot of flexibility. You may see a bigger piece of the pie,” Ms. Seder says.

The benefit is that you tend to get the chance to do more, and to operate in varied capacities of your choosing. It makes for a more interesting experience. Dr. Sherylle Tan, the Director of Internships and KLI Research at the Kravis Leadership Institute (KLI), says that the past experience of CMC students corroborates with this.

“Students will do things like develop curriculum, research reports. Some of them work for think tanks. They develop critical thinking skills, communication skills. They develop projects, curriculums. And sometimes interns do work in teams so they do build their team leadership abilities. They make unique tangible contributions to an organization in so many different ways,” Dr. Tan says.

Even the strictest cynic should consider a term at a non-profit: it bolsters your résumé. The trend across most industries, Ms. Seder adds, is that companies tend to look for students who boast a variety of experience. “Companies are looking for candidates with a variety of different kinds of experiences. They want a student that has maybe seen a couple of different types of work environments, and maybe done a variety of different things,” she says.

An internship in the social-sector gives you just that. And if your term at the non-profit proves especially productive, it will be even more valuable to your résumé. Dr. Tan says that a successful showing at such an internship “shows that for a two month period you were able to accomplish x, y and z. It shows that you have experience beyond the academic, that you have practical experience in the workforce. It also shows that you have interests in different areas.”

The ambitious student knows that these days it is the interview that is the make-or-break, be it for that prestigious internship or that AAA job at that AAA organization you have always wanted. An experience at a social-sector internship gives you both fresh perspectives, and different experiences to talk about. And when there are transferable skills — even better.

“Going with the [internship] choice that isn’t ‘safe’ may be surprising to that pragmatically-minded individual. I think people are looking for that well-rounded individual, especially in something like the consultant field where you want someone who can understand different areas. And the experience gives you much more interesting stuff to talk about during an interview,” Dr. Tan says.

Ms. Seder also warns against getting too caught up in the process of looking for the right internship. “A lot of people think their internships almost have to be sequential in nature, leading to an outcome. I don’t happen to share that perspective.” The need to specialize so early on in your college career — to look for that internship in that field — is, in her mind, exaggerated. Employers are not necessarily looking for that. What they are looking for, though, is what Ms. Seder calls the go-getter: “I would want on a student résumé to see some kind of active summer employment. I want to see a jam packed résumé, I want to see a kid who’s the mover and the shaker, and the one that is not going to leave any stone unturned.”

Freshmen and sophomores, who may find it hard to land a professional internship during the summer months, may find non-profit internships especially attractive.

“It’s hardest to get an internship during your freshman year, because the employers are generally looking at people with more experience, whether it’s academic experience or work experience, they’re usually less inclined to hire freshmen,” Ms. Seder says.

“But in the nonprofit sector I don’t see that as much, so that may be an excellent opportunity as a freshman to create some sort of an experience that’d be valuable to move you forward professionally, and you don’t have to fight for that role in the for-profit organization that are looking for older people.” And then there is what it means for you on a personal level. Doing an internship at a non-profit is in a very real sense a unique experience. You want to know what it is like to work in the social realm; you do not want to limit the experiences you get to enjoy in life. “Students should at one point participate in a non-profit internship or volunteer or do something within the social realm. They have the rest of their career and life to pursue their other interests after all,” Dr. Tan says.

A social-sector internship dovetails wonderfully with your career development as well. Ms. Seder says that one of things she loves to see in a student is a range of different experiences over the course of their three summers at CMC. In her opinion, “the more experiences a student has, the better the decision they can make for them when they’re coming out of school.” The more experienced student quite simply tends to be the wiser student.

KLI currently hosts three lines of internship programs: the KLI Partnered Internship program, the KLI Social Sector Internship program, and the KLI International Internship program. The first two share a focus on non-profit, service-oriented work. This writer would strongly encourage you to apply.