Among my generation, most of us received that advice after we finished college, as in “Congratulations on your degree; now it’s time to get a job.” We knew degrees connected us to careers, but most of us did not start thinking seriously about life after college until college was nearly over.
That’s changed. Today the advice many college students hear starting in their first year is, “Get an internship,” as in, “Get an internship so you’ll have a chance at a good job after college.” Career preparation and college are so closely linked today that many now view college exclusively as career preparation. Most students have heard the advice “Don’t major in the Liberal Arts, you’ll never get a job” at least once. (Not true, by the way. Our philosophy, history, English and religious studies majors do quite well in the jobs marketplace.) Our students also know, by virtue of constant repetition, college degrees are the surest path to personal prosperity. And they take comfort in the flurry of regional economic plans by M7, the City of Milwaukee and others stressing the connections between colleges and the region’s future. The brighter tomorrows they envision rely heavily on development of home-grown talent today. Colleges, it seems, have become as necessary as capital in building our region’s economic strength.
Is this emphasis on careers, professional preparation and employability good for students? For the most part, yes. We certainly help our students consider all their strengths and options, and occasionally we gently guide them toward more realistic assessments of their employment options. But most students today, like their future employers, expect college not just to prepare them for careers but also to give them a strong start on individual career paths.
As a result, a college’s career connections and job placement rates matter more now than ever. We do well in both areas. During the past few years, surveys found 90 percent or more of Alverno graduates land jobs within six months of graduation. That compares to a national placement rate average of 55-60 percent annually.
Our Internship program is the most visible part of our robust career education infrastructure. Started in 1971 by Sister Celestine Schall, it was one of the nation’s first college-wide internship programs. Last year, 66 percent of U.S. college students completed some sort of internship, up 6 percent from the year before. I am proud to say since the early 1980s, every Alverno student has completed one or more internships by the time she graduates.
Who are these interns, and where are they interning? Each year, hundreds of Alverno’s future nurses, teachers and music and art therapists participate in clinical internships and practice-teaching experiences required by their respective accrediting bodies. Hundreds more students—majoring in business, the sciences, community leadership, psychology, English and other humanities—also test their emerging abilities in businesses and nonprofits large and small.
Whether they are exploring future careers or simply sampling the professional work world, our evaluations show a good internship gives students three advantages:
Building career connections: While some students advance from their internships to full-time jobs, most use the experience as a stepping-stone to wider opportunities, often with the help of their internship sponsors. Northwestern Mutual and Johnson Controls, for example, offer regular networking sessions for interns to help them connect with other departments in the company. Many internship mentors also invite interns along to professional events and business gatherings so students can get to know others in their field.
Building career confidence: I remember my first professional job, working in a mental health program in New Jersey. (I was one of the lucky ones who went from my internship to a full-time position in the same organization.) My supervisor encouraged my fellow fledgling social workers and me to think outside the box and find new ways to help our clients. I proposed an independent living facility for a group of patients capable, with a little help, of holding down jobs and taking care of themselves. As that program started and showed increasing signs of success, I think the biggest change it made was in me. “I can do this,” I thought. “This is where I belong.”
That confidence is one of the biggest blessings of internships for Alverno students. Elizabeth O’Hara, a senior majoring in Community Leadership Development, just completed a challenging summer internship with Catholic Charities in Washington D.C., working with refugee resettlement. After a summer of hard work and stellar evaluations, her words echoed my thoughts from years ago. “I can do this,” she reported. “And I can be good at it.”
Using Alverno abilities outside the classroom: Often, students are amazed to discover the abilities they practice so rigorously at Alverno—especially problem solving, communication, social interaction, and analysis—are required daily in their internships. Tyler Ward, an Alverno mathematics major, drew heavily on her knowledge of mathematics during her internship with JDA Software Group in Racine. But the daily impact of her communication, social interaction and problem-solving abilities made an equally strong impression on her.
Every professional has an obligation to open doors for the generation that follows. If you believe what you do is important, it is important to pass along your insights. You can help build the future by providing an Alverno student with an outstanding internship experience. Contact our Internship Office, led by Susan Leister (firstname.lastname@example.org; 414-382-6019), to find out how.
Mary J. Meehan, Ph.D.