Despite Challenges, Students Are Learning, Networking, Experimenting with Careers

Jack Valentine was eagerly looking forward to the summer internship he’d landed working for Shutterstock, a multinational tech firm headquartered in the Empire State Building in the heart of Manhattan.

The internship sounded exciting. So did the prospect of “living in the city, getting that experience,” he says.

Then Covid hit. Instead of making the Manhattan scene and hanging out in Shutterstock’s Google-like offices, Valentine—a junior marketing major in UVM’s Grossman School from Okemo, Vermont—is cooped up in his Burlington apartment interning remotely via Zoom, email and Slack.  

But a funny thing has happened. While the Manhattan trappings are absent, Valentine is still learning plenty.

“It’s been unbelievable,” he says. “I’m talking to people all around the world, not just talking with them but working with them. I’m learning from other people on the team. And the company has done a really good job of onboarding, giving me the resources and the information I need to succeed in the position.”

Valentine’s experience isn’t unique.  

“Students in virtual internships may have to scale back their expectations,” says Amanda Chase, the internship coordinator in UVM’s Career Center. “But really good work can still happen virtually. Students can still make important networking connections, gain experience to list on a resume, develop their skills and try out work in a particular field.”

The pandemic has thrown a jumbo-sized wrench into the time-honored summer internship. Many employers revoked the offers they made to students pre-Covid. Of the ones that didn’t, nearly half converted them to virtual internships, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.  

At UVM, students have persisted despite the challenges, with hundreds—assisted by staff in the Career Center and in the academic units—experiencing a Covid-inflected internship this summer. Many, like Valentine, are sitting behind a computer. Some, like Olivia Lopez in UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, are taking precautions but are out and about.

Echoing Chase, all say their experiences are worthwhile and are even helping them develop new skills that could pay dividends in the post-Covid world that will eventually emerge.

Olivia Lopez

As Covid-19 began to make itself felt in the U.S. in February and March, Olivia Lopez thought her internship at UVM’s nearby Jericho Research Forest might be scrubbed. The junior Environmental Science/Forestry double major from North Andover, Mass. checked Vermont governor Phil Scott’s website daily for an update on the spread of the disease.

But Forestry Department chair Tony D’Amato was reassuring. “He said we’ll be outside and the risk is low if we’re doing things properly.”

Since early June, when the internship started, Lopez has been hard at work with two fellow Rubenstein School students using a length of rebar with a plastic cap to mark 50-acre “plot centers” in the 476-acre research forest—data collection points that will be used to gather information in the future on tree age and health, carbon sequestration and changes in tree species.

The internship lines up perfectly with the career she plans in forestry, ideally researching forest health and trees’ ability to store carbon and slow climate change. “It’s very applicable, and I’m gaining a lot of insight,” she says.

Lopez has a mask but doesn’t need it most of the time; she and the other students are rarely closer than “shouting distance.” But meetings with D’Amato and other faculty, and the one-credit course that’s part of the internship, take place over Zoom.

Lopez’s internship is part of the Rubenstein School’s Perennial Internship program, which holds paid positions for UVM students every summer in environmental companies, organizations and state agencies.

Student Jack Valentine smiles with laptop at desk

Jack Valentine

Valentine (above) was in the middle of apartment hunting in early March when the pandemic landed in New York. He quickly pulled the plug. At about that time, Shutterstock—which had offered him the internship in November—went dark. It was weeks before he learned that his internship was on but would take a virtual form.

Valentine is working in the company’s marketing department, helping make sure the sales team has the information and resources it needs to sell Shutterstock’s vast library of images, videos and music, which clients frequently integrate into their own web platforms.

It’s an experience directly related to his career goals. “I’m passionate about marketing, and I want to work in tech.” The internship will be a highlight of the resume he’ll use to market himself when he hits the job market, he says.

Working from his apartment has its downside. “You have to make a conscious effort to flip the switch off and stop working, so you’re fresh the next day,” he says. But the virtual internship has benefits, too. In addition to learning new skills and expanding his network, he’s mastering the art of working remotely — Zooming with a team member in Singapore one minute and another in London the next — a work style he thinks will be commonplace in the future. “Everyone's going to come out better at the end of this. We're going to be able to connect with people from around the world and work better and work smarter.”

Kyra Peoples

For Kyra Peoples, interning virtually for Good Beginnings—a non-profit that gives respite to parents with new babies by placing trained volunteers in their homes to do chores and help with childcare—wasn’t without disappointment. A conference in Boston that the junior Nursing major from Springfield, Vermont had planned to attend was cancelled. And she hasn’t been able to shadow volunteers, who stopped making home visits when the virus took hold. But the internship’s virtual form also offers an advantage that outweighs the negatives, Peoples says. It is placing her squarely in the path of medicine’s future.

Peoples’ assignment for the summer is to research digital platforms that will allow volunteers to check in with families virtually, as well as make home visits, a direction the organization was headed in even before the pandemic. At the end of the internship, she’ll recommend one of the platforms to senior management. Criteria she’s using include privacy—the platform needs to be HIPAA-compliant—cost and ease of use.

It’s not lost on Peoples that, in the process, she’s gaining hands-on experience in the growing field of online medicine. “A lot of my college courses are about how communications in the health world are changing and how healthcare is evolving with the new services that are coming online. I’m using that knowledge a lot more than I would have in an in-person internship.”

It’s a skill that will give her a leg up in her career, she says. Both in comparing the platforms and in talking with health care professional who are using them, she’s preparing herself to work in a future where online communications are common and will “allow doctors and nurses to see many more patients,” she says.

UVM student Jill Williamson stands in a field in autumn with her back toward camera

Jill Williamson        

Studio Art and Environmental Studies double major Jill Williamson (above) landed what she thought was the perfect internship, given her academic interests—working with the internationally known environmental artist Nancy Winship Milliken in her studio in Shelburne, Vermont.

Every summer Milliken attracts interns from around the country, who help create and assemble her large sculptures and art pieces, which are frequently rooted in and celebrate a particular place. When the pandemic took hold, Williamson, a rising junior from Hingham, Massachusetts, knew that the in-person internship wasn’t likely to happen. But how do you do an art internship virtually? she wondered. Milliken wasn’t sure either. But she had the germ of an idea.

It was simply the phrase, “The Place Where.” Milliken asked the five virtual interns who had signed on with her—three from Vermont, one from Texas, and one from New York—if they thought the words were resonant enough to spur an art project. They did. “We got to take that small seed and develop it into something larger,” Williamson says.

The Place Where would be a public art project, the group decided. People from around the world could submit photos of places that were meaningful for them and supply a few lines of text that explained why by completing the phrase, “The Place Where …” Students designed and programmed the site, designed the logo, wrote prompts to solicit the art, and curated the web gallery. “The feedback has been great and we’re excited to get even more responses,” Williamson said.

The experience was powerful, Williamson says, perhaps more than the in-person version would have been, because students could observe Milliken’s creative process at close range. “It was really interesting for me to see how Nancy worked. I don't think I would have gotten that if I was just jumping right into a project in June.”

Jack Rutherford

Jack Rutherford’s virtual internship with the National Association of Homebuilders in Alexandria, Virginia has been a great learning experience—but in ways the junior Economics major from Burlington didn’t expect.  

He landed the sought after position with the help of UVM’s alumni network. NAHB’s CEO is Jerry Howard, UVM class of 1977, who arranged an introductory phone call for Rutherford and a remote interview.

His assignment for the summer is a challenging one: creating a detailed research report that examines the impact of Covid-19 on housing starts and credit availability in a range of countries from the UK, Belgium and Japan to Canada, Norway, Brazil and Australia. His managers are supportive, helpful and always available, Rutherford says. But how the information is gathered, organized and displayed, so the complex information is clear, rests with him.

Getting the work done in a virtual setting is harder for him than he anticipated, Rutherford says. In an office, “I'd feel comfortable just walking up to someone and telling them exactly what I needed help with,” he says. Doing it all from behind a computer screen is more difficult. “It's challenging for me but I know when it is challenging, I’m going to get the most learning out of it.” Overcoming that reticence now will help in the future, he says, when much more office work will likely be done virtually.

Even with the challenges, Rutherford is meeting expectations and building confidence. He met with his boss recently. “She was impressed with the work I’d done and said it was producing the results they wanted. That made me feel pretty good.”


Jeffrey R. Wakefield

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