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BY MATT MILLER
Internship programs offer a great way to mentor young writers and communicators, while providing vital assistance in your work. It’s an incredibly rewarding experience for all involved.
Internships require an inordinate amount of time to manage. Interns are often unreliable and require you to work more, not less. You’ll end up wishing you had never signed up.
Which is it? Quite simply: It depends.
As with many writers, my career began with an internship. Twenty years ago, a fellow Penn State English major told me about a summer internship posting for, strangely enough, OWAA (then headquartered in Pennsylvania).
I knew about OWAA and felt this would be a golden opportunity. Alas, my association with OWAA would have to wait, as the staff decided not to take on summer interns that year. However, Penn State’s internship coordinator offered me a writing and editing internship with Penn State’s Center for the Performing Arts.
I knew practically nothing about the arts, but I signed on anyhow. As it turns out, the arts center produced a substantial amount of printed material each year — 50 performance programs, press releases, brochures and newsletters. It proved the perfect learning environment: tight deadlines, tough editors and lots of copy that needed to be written.
I stayed on for two more semesters, often skipping class to write and edit one more symphony story. In the meantime, my internship supervisor introduced me to an acquaintance, legendary outdoor writer Jim Bashline, who helped me publish my first outdoor stories.
The performing arts center hired me as a full-time writer the day after I graduated. I’ve been working as a professional communicator ever since. The habits I formed as an intern still serve me well today.
As such, I recognize the value of internship programs. I have long had this idea that I could mentor an aspiring young writer or public relations student, much as the staff at the performing arts center assisted me.
And yet. Anyone who has worked with many interns knows that this story doesn’t always have a happy ending. Interns don’t want to write “uncreative” copy like press releases. They need constant supervision. They produce work that requires so much editing it would have taken much less time to do it yourself.
A local university requires internships: the kind of well-meaning protocol that sounds good but ensures a steady stream of unmotivated students merely ticking off another graduation requirement.
I ended my internship program with this institution after a string of lackluster interns. The final one showed up on the first day and we discussed his first assignment. He then disappeared for a month, my emails and phone calls unreturned. He showed up and announced that he had not had a chance to start my assignment. When I said this was unacceptable, he left and didn’t return until the final week of the semester, when he asked me what his grade was going to be.
Extreme instances aside, there are ways to help ensure a productive internship, for you and for the student. Here are some guidelines I’d suggest following.
Be honest with yourself. You imagine yourself the wise sage, passing on advice while mentoring an aspiring writer. And then you are faced with travel, deadlines, meetings and the long list of responsibilities you face. The intern is relegated to some “busy work” and sits around wondering where you are. Internships take time. If you don’t have the time or a clear sense of what an intern’s duties would be, maybe it’s better to not start an internship program.
Set clear expectations. It’s common knowledge on college campuses that internships lead to jobs. This may very well be true, but it also gives certain students the mistaken impression that all they have to do is show up a few days a week and they will be rewarded with a guaranteed job. It may be your job to explain the more subtle benefits of internships. Be clear about what will be expected as far as deadlines and time commitment. Creating internship objectives—clear, achievable steps — leaves no doubt as to what you expect, and what success looks like.
Prepare students for unglamorous tasks. Many students — particularly English students — have spent their lives as “creative writers.” Many internships force them to confront the far less intriguing world occupied by press releases, promotional copy, photo archives and filing cabinets. Some students want to write the Great American Novel or exercise their “artistic license.” They probably won’t make great interns. But it’s your fault if you promise exciting feature stories and then assign press releases. Giving students a few more interesting assignments to reward their hard work raises morale and builds skills.
Edit. Taking the time to edit your intern’s work and then showing her how to improve may be the most valuable tool you can share. Some students react very poorly to having their work edited. They’ve chosen the wrong major. Others will recognize your assistance and improve their work. They’ll begin editing their own work. These lessons will stick throughout their careers.
Treat your intern as a colleague. My performing arts center colleagues included me on their softball team and invited me to happy hours. I received free tickets to all events. Those elements made me feel like an employee, not cheap help. If you don’t work in an office, inviting the intern on an outdoor adventure, sharing good books or just sharing some fishing stories can help build a sense of camaraderie — and encourage the intern to work harder.
Be a career counselor. Most interns presumably signed on to better their career prospects. Even if they don’t show up, interns probably look up to you and value your advice. Take a few minutes to discuss their short-term and long-term career goals. A very small time commitment can actually change the lives of interns. Twenty years later, I still think about advice given me by Jim Bashline and my internship supervisors at Penn State. It’s a gift I can only repay by helping other young and beginning communicators.♦
— Matt Miller is director of communications for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho and a member of OWAA’s board of directors. Follow him on two blogs, Idaho Nature Notes (www.idahonaturenotes. blogspot.com) and Cool Green Science (blog.nature.org/author/mmiler). Contact him at email@example.com.