College Students NEED More Internships and Experiential Learning, Here’s Why

No one wants to do this, but the people that do are often ahead of the game as far as self-knowledge and realistic expectations about work goes.

“smiling woman standing beside smiling man pointing MacBook” by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

It took me five years to complete my undergraduate degree. To be honest, I was all over the place. After starting my college years at a small state school in North Central Pennsylvania in the pursuit of Criminal Justice, I left after one year (along with 70% of the rest of the first-year class). YIKES!

From there, I really wanted to quit school. I was stubborn. I wanted to work. My mother refused to let me stop. We made a deal. I switched to a small, private Jesuit liberal arts college closer to home, but I went part-time for three semesters and commuted. While I was doing fine academically, I was “behind schedule” and felt isolated from peers who lived on campus. There were other reasons for the isolation I felt, too.

Unlike many of my peers that came from middle to upper-middle-class families, I grew up in an upper lower class to lower middle-class background. Additionally, I had been working since I was 14. My first job was a dishwasher. The first night that I went into work, I was told to take apart and clean the meat grinder. That was after my boss told me that the scalding hot water for the dishes wasn’t hot enough and that my sink was a “cesspool.” (Glad those days are over).

Photo by David Clarke on Unsplash

Circling back, all throughout college, I consistently maintained a job. In fact, during my junior and senior year, I had three jobs on top of the 18 credits I was taking. As funny as it was, that semester was as high as my GPA ever was, and I made dean’s list.

But more important than the jobs I maintained were my internships and the experiential learning opportunities I took advantage of.

Between my second year of college and my fifth year “Victory Lap,” I worked everywhere from an NGO in Cape Town South Africa for 6 months (unpaid), I co-organized a conference for college students at a $700 million dollar international relief agency ($10.00 an hour in a city), I clerked for an attorney ($8.00), and I worked at a student resource center for women ($8.50).

These positions were all temporary internships, barre my work in the student resource center which was a work-study job.

“landscape photography of seashore under cumulus clouds” by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

After college, I worked on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean called Yap where I taught full-time. This was considered a volunteer position, but I received a $120 per month stipend, plus housing and some food. You would think that the $1.25 p/h minimum wage would make that significant enough to last me. However, the shipping required for “off-island” goods raised prices high. Things like beer were bought by can and weight instead of getting specials on purchasing in bulk.

Don’t Be Afraid to Work for Free (or close to it)

The theme of my experiences was that I was never afraid to work for nothing or next to nothing because I attached value to the experience. The jobs that I received the least amount of money for were responsible for teaching me the more about myself and developing the most useful skills. It was the skill-based experiential learning that I crafted through these internships and experiential learning opportunities that led me to not only understand myself but made me better at what I do today.

People argue that college is a waste of time. Even some people that graduate will tell you “it’s a waste of time.” I know one person who had their entire college paid for, got a near 6-figure-salary job after school, quit it, started his own business, and argues all the time that college is a waste of time.

My counter-argument. It depends on what you’re gifted at and how determined you are to create opportunities for yourself.

I have to be real with you. I didn’t belong at the college I went to. It was too expensive, and to be even more transparent, my high school and first-year college GPA was so low that I HAD to go part-time at first. Otherwise, they wouldn’t let me in.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not regret a single thing in my life. However, advice that I would give people that are unsure after high school, you know, the majority of people that aren’t type-A sort of go-getters in their late teens, myself included: take time to understand yourself, your skill set, and go slowly.

“Life is not a sprint, but rather a marathon.”

“woman sitting on floor” by Janet Orzechowski on Unsplash

Go and take the time to work for free for a job that you think you might want to do. Learn more about yourself. Do it for a few weeks, a month, what’s the worst that will happen? You realize you don’t like it? Good. That’s better than testing things out after your degree, or when you have a family and won’t have time to take the risks you can today.

Before I started working for a lawyer, I thought I wanted to go to law school. After eight months, HAH! Glad to have gotten that out of my system.

Getting it Out of My System int

I thought I wanted to work at an NGO for the rest of my life. HAH! Maybe after retirement, but I am one greedy, selfish MF and I like to get Paid.

When I went to live in the Pacific Islands to volunteer teach, my friends and family thought I was crazy. My professors hardly understood why I wanted to go. Sometimes I wonder why I even truly wanted to go. But the amount of self-discovery, friendships, and professional experience I gained in a low-stakes setting was invaluable.

Through these experiences, I received portraits of days in the lives of the careers I thought I wanted. I realized I didn’t like cubicles, offices, and suits. I realized skills I needed to work on. When bosses and supervisors commented on a good performance, patterns and themes started to emerge. What I was good at started to become thematic through these experiences.

Now, as I sit here on the verge of moving into my second year of business, I can confidently say that I know myself, I understand most of my limitations, and while I am flexible and (probably) unrealistically determined with my goals, I know what my goals are. I work to protect those goals every day.

“silver Apple MacBook Pro on” by rawpixel on Unsplash

The self-discovery and professional discovery I’ve learned through low-risk internships, in addition to the skills I developed, have been an invaluable part of my learning experience.

I love what I do and who I do it with. I never compromise professional ethics for money. I have a solid network of people I surround myself by who is equally as motivated, smarter than me, and wealthier than me. I give back to the local economy, I support local artists, I never turn down a friend or family member that asks for help.

Experiential learning and internships have transformed my life. I’m hoping that the current and future generations of students embrace this as well. College isn’t some magic wand that you can wave over yourself, go through the motions, and get a diamond from a mound of coal.

If you do college right, it can be stinking hard. You are busy constantly, you are never bored, and you’re steadily improving yourself.

If you don’t know what you want to do, don’t be afraid to slow things down and take the time to understand yourself more- that’s life; work is not life.

“Are you working to live or are you living to work?”

Understanding yourself is more than just following what you should spend the rest of your life doing.

In Closing

Besides, the jobs that are out there now probably won’t even exist in 20–30 years. Something like 40% of the jobs that students now in grade school will take do not even exist yet. Just understand your skill set, what you’re good at, and some things you might like. The rest will follow the majority of the time.