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Beyond the classroom: Internships teach valuable lessons about work, life

In a time when the job market is starting to show gains after the recent recession, more job-seekers in the U.S. are earning college degrees. The percentage of Americans age 25 to 29 who obtained a bachelor?s degree or higher has risen from 23 percent in 1990 to 34 percent in 2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.


Three women talking
New Mexico State University special education and communications disorders professor Youkyung Bae, center, talks with students inside the speech building. Students in many education disciplines participate in student teaching or practicum training as part of their degree programs. (Photo by Darren Phillips)
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New Mexico State University alumnus Travis Burkhard, left, of Sandia National Laboratories, speaks with a student about internship opportunities during a career fair at Corbett Center on campus. (Photo by Darren Phillips)

So what can university students do to set themselves apart in a sea of mortarboards when they reach graduation ? aside from scrawling ?Hi, Mom!? on their caps?

One thing employers have increasingly identified as a must-have for applicants is some type of internship experience. In a 2013 study from American Public Media?s Marketplace and the Chronicle of Higher Education, internship experience came back as the most important thing employers look for when evaluating a recent graduate.

Kevin Andrew, coordinator of the Cooperative Education and Internship Program at New Mexico State University, said it?s not unusual for a graduate?s first job offer to come from the company where they completed a successful internship, as more employers use the cooperative learning time as a low-risk vetting opportunity.

?Businesses have to make smart decisions,? Andrew said. ?This way, they get to see how the fit works.?

Some disciplines, like education and nursing, include clinical or practicum experiences as a graduation requirement. In the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management is one program that gives required, upper-division credit for internship experience in the industry.

In other fields, an internship or cooperative education experience ? or co-op ? is strongly encouraged, though not required to earn a degree.

Nationally, 63 percent of paid interns in the class of 2012 reportedly had at least one job offer when they graduated, according to a student survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Of the students with no internship experience, about 40 percent had an offer.

For College of Engineering students, a co-op experience isn?t required, but it?s extremely valuable, said Patricia Sullivan, associate dean for outreach and public service. The college has built strong relationships with companies like Jacobs Technology, Intel, Raytheon, Halliburton, Boeing, ExxonMobil, Sandia National Labs and many others that actively recruit NMSU engineering students for their co-op programs.

?Internships and co-ops allow students to explore application of their classroom knowledge in a real-world, applied setting,? Sullivan said. ?It provides both students and employers with the opportunity to find a good fit for possible permanent employment following graduation.?
Shane Palmer, a 2001 graduate working as a mechanical engineer in Denver, did several semester-long co-op ?tours? with NASA, first at White Sands Test Facility and later at the Johnson Space Center near Houston.

?I feel like NMSU?s engineering department did a great job diversifying book learning and hands-on learning,? Palmer said, ?but what I saw and experienced at NASA magnified my academic preparation. The work I did involved projects that were years in the making, not single-semester or one-year projects to which an academic program is limited. The projects obviously involved learning, but it wasn?t solely for the sake of learning ? it was to put people into space!?

Beyond training in quality assurance, design, manufacturing and robotics, the co-op gave Palmer valuable experience in navigating a workplace full of people from varied backgrounds and disciplines, as well as personal and professional responsibility ? soft skills that employers in the Marketplace/Chronicle of Higher Education survey indicated are often lacking in recent graduates.

Ultimately, he said, the experience opened doors to future employment.

?I had interviews with companies I had never previously heard of that were impressed with my resume,? he said. ?My grades were decent, but my work experience was outstanding ? so much so, companies didn?t usually even ask me much about my grades.?

Students in NMSU?s College of Business are recruited for internship experiences with major financial services and insurance firms like KPMG and Merrill Lynch, as well as local firms like Beasley, Mitchell & Co.

Jamie Fletcher, senior vice president for wealth management and senior financial adviser at the Fletcher Group in Las Cruces, a financial advisory team inside Merrill Lynch, said internships provide a low-risk way of evaluating possible future employees as they start with simple tasks and take on more responsibility as they grow.

?It gives the intern a way to look at a firm and the firm a way to look at a possible employee,? Fletcher said. ?Internships reduce the risk of hiring over time ? it?s like a free look.?

He said most interns arrive at his office with a theoretical view of finance and leave with a practical application of what they?ve learned. And while they contribute a lot to the office, he makes sure the interns know that their studies come first, so he works to accommodate class schedules and other academic responsibilities.

One of the interns who worked with the Fletcher Group was Kevin Estes, who earned his bachelor?s in finance in 2013, with minors in banking and economics. Estes said he learned volumes about work ethic and understanding client needs and personalities during his time there. Fletcher hired Estes as a part-time seasonal associate after his unpaid, for-credit internship was complete, and set him up with an interview with the state complex director for Merrill Lynch.

But by then, Estes had learned possibly the most valuable thing an internship could have taught him about becoming a financial adviser ? that it wasn?t for him.

?I realized that I was most likely best suited as more of an analyst than a financial adviser,? Estes said. He now works as a market project analyst in Albuquerque, and said he?s grateful for the protected view of the industry he thought he wanted to join, along with the life skills he learned.
In creative fields like art or writing, internships can help students produce the portfolio pieces they need to demonstrate their skill in their craft.

Lucas Peerman, a 2002 journalism graduate who?s now digital editor at the Las Cruces Sun-News, started his first internship in high school and collected experiences ? and published clips of his work ? from the Sun-News, the Carlsbad Current-Argus, the Santa Fe New Mexican, and eventually the Boston Globe, through a Dow Jones News Fund Editing Internship.

?In a classroom, you learn how to write; in an internship, you learn how to report,? Peerman said. ?Often, in the classroom, you are given information that you craft into a story. In an internship, you learn that information is rarely given to you, and you have to go into the field, find it and report it.?

As a supervising editor, Peerman now helps select and train interns in the newsroom, and said successful interns often find themselves with full-time offers when openings are available.

?Of the 18 newsroom employees at the Las Cruces Sun-News, four are former interns at the paper,? he said. ?A positive internship experience will lead to job offers. The offer may not come from the paper you interned for, but when jobs come open, editors talk to one another and often suggest a former intern for entry-level positions.?

Help is available for students who want to find an internship or co-op opportunity but don?t know where to start ? or for businesses that have an opportunity to offer. For more information, visit careerservices.nmsu.edu, email careers@nmsu.edu or call 575-646-1631.