Internships draw to a close, but the lessons learned live on

Internships draw to a close, but the lessons learned live onInternship Insider has focused on giving readers ideas about how and where to pursue internships, and to encourage people to think creatively about these "practice'' work experiences. As summer winds down and I say goodbye to my own intern, whose assistance has been invaluable to me in recent months, it's only natural that I think about how and what he has learned while working with me.

When the internship began, we each had a loose picture of what the experience would look like. I thought an intern would largely do background research for me, interviewing professionals in the human resources field or checking in with people who run various companies' and organizations' internship programs and providing that information to me for use in the column.

My intern -- whose background is largely in creative writing, rather than journalism -- had a much different idea, and saw the column as a potential virtual "soapbox'' of sorts, where opinions on political and social issues could be vented even if unrelated to internships. This was an important difference, and teaches an important lesson about internships, particularly loosely structured ones that don't have a formal format.

Make sure that both the intern and the intern supervisor understand from day one the task at hand, and the role each will play. Make no assumptions about the expectations. This is true whether you are interning as part of a formal program in, say, a large corporate marketing department for Pepsi, or whether you are working one-on-one with an entrepreneur.

But a rocky (or confusing, as the case may be) start need not preclude a productive experience. My intern brought ideas and experiences to the table that I'd not have thought of on my own, such as the concept of a column suggesting that life interests – not simply career ambitions – drive one's choice in where to intern, both geographically and philosophically. What's more, with an intern's help, I could share an idea, sometimes with embarrassingly short notice, and have someone eagerly seek and find links to relevant articles and websites. Sometimes they were right on the money, sometimes not. But along the way, we both learned a great deal.

One thing that my intern learned and was surprised by was how helpful some people could be. Ted Williams of, for example, was willing to provide answers clearly, quickly and concisely for the column.

The thing I was most surprised by was my intern's point that while internships are all the rage now, and might be seen by some as a trend, they actually date back to the beginning of...well...any type of work, from manual labor to the creation of art.

"Look back through the centuries,'' he pointed out, "weren't most great painters, musicians, philosophers and educators interns at one time? I think they were called apprentices, and sometimes they weren't paid...Rembrandt, for example, was apprenticed as a young man to the history painter Swanenburgh; Plato was mentored by Socrates; more recently, rock guitarist Steve Miller in a sense 'interned' for Les Paul. So the whole concept of interning, I think, is not only universal, but immemorial.''

That's a profound note to end on. Internships may be new as an industry, so to speak, but at heart they remain a representation of human beings' quest to educate themselves, gain skills, and make a living.

Jennifer Halperin is the internship coordinator at Columbia College Chicago, and Money College's Internship Insider.
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