In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations and institutions scrambled to put systems in place to allow for remote work. Some were able to adapt rapidly and some are still struggling. Ultimately, the overwhelming majority of workers who are able to work from home did so. Now almost three months into mandatory remote work, we recognize that while the isolation can be difficult for some, the reality is that working from home is a privilege. 

Students too were required to go home as dorms emptied and classes moved to online platforms, but those at the crossroads of work and school are often overlooked. The young aspiring professionals worked tirelessly during the school year for the opportunity of landing an internship, hopefully putting them a step closer to their dream job. Internships are key because they allow students to build their network, learn soft skills not taught in schools and provide the opportunity to be paired with thoughtful, patient and understanding mentors. 

Because of the pandemic, many internships have been canceled. For some it might merely be an inconvenience and a disappointment. For others, such as low-income students, missing these experiences can have lasting repercussions on their professional lives; alternative work might be scarce as the national unemployment rate continues to soar. Some internships are fortunately still taking place, yet the experience of a virtual internship is not the same as an in-person one. There is not the same sense of camaraderie built among other interns in the same cohort, networking and face to-face-interactions with mentors and colleagues and getting to know the feeling of working in an office. 

So what can organizations with virtual internship opportunities do to support their students even while they themselves are coping with ongoing current challenges?

A crucial step organizations can take is to ask questions. We can’t fix problems we don’t know exist. Open and honest conversations between mentors and mentees are more important than ever. Some students might be afraid or embarrassed to admit they don’t have a reliable internet connection, a personal computer or a quiet place without distractions where they can work. Organizations like Girls Inc. have had experience in this even before the pandemic, and they provide laptops to all program participants. For summer 2020 internships, they conducted surveys with their participants to find several accommodating solutions for their students. 

Other organizations like Focus Points Family Resource Center also understand that simply providing a student with an internship or apprenticeship, even if paid, is not enough to guarantee a student’s success. Focus Points offers childcare for participants in their adult English classes and the Comal Food Incubator program. A holistic approach to participant well-being should be a high priority in any organization.

Employers also need to regularly examine the challenges of remote work. Supervisors and mentors must be understanding of the unique difficulties of communicating virtually and be more flexible with all working practices. Understanding the different realities of each student is pivotal to their success. 

Last but not least, improving practices to reduce workplace inequities, which include building teams that are intentional in creating a culture of diversity equity and inclusion to aid the success of the interns and the workplace as a whole in the short and long term. Despite the challenges of virtual work, this time can also be an opportunity to encourage and strengthen your organization’s diversity goals. Most importantly, organizations must remember the commitment they have to students and to the next generation of professionals in the sustainability movement and beyond.

Through our Sustainability Skills Initiative, The Alliance Center is providing internships to five young people this summer, made possible by partnerships with the University of Chicago, Girls Inc. and the University of Wisconsin. Through these partnerships, we are able to assess and work to meet the individual needs of each of our interns to provide a safe, valuable and constructive internship experience. To learn more about this initiative, contact Isabel Mendoza at imendoza@thealliancecenter.org

Written by Isabel Mendoza, Program Manager at The Alliance Center