Requiring Internships at College

Earlier this month, Gallup published a fascinating piece on why college should make internships a requirement. Noting that Gallup data shows that parents, students, and the public believe the top reason for higher education is to get a good job, reflecting on the fact that only about a quarter of students (27 percent) had a good job waiting for them after earning a bachelor’s degree, and determining that almost another 25 percent had to wait at least six months (6 percent waiting seven to 12 months and 16 percent waiting at least a year) before finding said good job, Gallup’s authors could come to only one conclusion. Gallup’s Brandon Busteed and Zac Auter determined that internships were key for student success, and it was up to colleges and universities to ensure it.

More specifically, Busteen and Auter noted:

the truth is, higher education institutions and accreditors are out of sync with what the public and students want most from a college degree. And nothing will improve this more than this one step: Making an internship — where students can apply what they are learning in a real-world work situation — a requirement to graduate.

I’ll admit, dear ol’ Eduflack gets into more than his share of rhetorical skirmishes regarding the ultimate goals of higher education. I appreciate those that believe the purpose of college is to instill a greater sense of learning and an appreciation for thought in those that pursue it. I’ll even acknowledge the points so many make, that studying the classics or a dead language or something of that ilk can make one a better person and a better citizen.

But it is equally hard for me to wrap my hands around someone taking out $100k in student loans to be the most well-read barista at the local Starbucks. I can appreciate the value of the liberal arts, but don’t possess the rose-colored classes that come with it that require one to believe the pursuit of such liberal arts are the key to a happy and profitable life, one that ensures food on the table and a roof over the head of the family for decades to come.

Confession time. I am the product of a liberal arts education. I spent four years at Mr. Jefferson’s University in Charlottesville. I majored in two fields. The first was government (not even political science, but the foundations of American government, foreign affairs, and political theory). The second was rhetoric and communications studies, a degree no longer available at U.Va. I was part of the last graduating class with RCS majors, as the university abandoned our pursuits of Aristotle and Machiavelli and the foundations of rhetoric itself and replaced it with the more practical communications that can be found at any university, where one can study TV 101.

I learned an incredible amount in both my majors, particularly in RCS. One of the first floor speeches I ever wrote for a member of the U.S. Senate was tracking the history of Independence Day here in the United States back to the early teachings of Aristotle. As delivered, the speech was more than an hour long. All because of liberal arts education from the University of Virginia.

But while I confess, I must also admit that I am not a fool. Even as I was graduating from U.Va., I was rarely asked what my college major was or even what my GPA might be. My experience at Mr. Jefferson’s University – and my perceived successes there – were shaped by two factors, factors that happened well outside the traditional arts and sciences classroom.

The first was the four years I spent at The Cavalier Daily, an independent student newspaper that provided no pay and no college credit for its journalists. As managing editor of The CD, I worked more than 100 hours a week supervising a volunteer staff of 150 and putting out a 16-page broadsheet newspaper five times a week. I was 21 years old. No college class prepared me for that experience, and no course could ever have captured all that was taught and learned.

The second was three summers of interning on Capitol Hill. A course during my first year in college led to a general legislative internship with my U.S. senator before my second year of college. I was bitten by the political bug during that month-long stint in DC. The following summer, I earned a three-month internship working in U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s (WV) press office. I repeated the experience the summer before my final year of college. Those three summers then led to a job offer on Capitol Hill, an offer that let me shelve plans for law school for, oh, going on 23 years now.

These experiences taught me about writing and critical thinking and management. They helped me learn to multitask. They forced me to question authority and push myself way beyond any comfort zones. They turned me into the professional I am today, equipping me with all of the 21st century skills, social and emotional learning, and other such attributes we eagerly seek in the professional world today.

I wasn’t required to do any of these things. My college degree did not change because of them (though I may have attended a few more actual classes if I wasn’t spending so much time at the college paper all of those years). But had I not taken those internships or worked for a newspaper, I would never have had the skills and abilities necessary to pursue the career path I’m on today. No question about it.

We like to tell high school students that the best way to prepare them for postsecondary education is to have them take dual-enrollment courses while still in high school, demonstrating that they are capable of doing college-level work. We should be doing the same for college students. The only way to demonstrate they are capable of performing in the professional work is by having them experience it as interns.

There is nothing wrong with using the college years to study dead languages, obscure poets, or unproven political theories. But at some point, those studies have to be applied to the real world, where students can see how their postsecondary experiences can be applied to their post-college worlds. That happens in an internship, not in a college classroom.

 

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