At ITHAKA we are committed to providing our interns with opportunities to gain useful real-world experience, develop their professional skills, and make connections for their career paths. Colette Johnson, Ithaka S+R’s Director of Strategic Initiatives, writes about the challenges of creating and maintaining a productive internship program during the pandemic and the lessons her team and the interns gleaned from the experience. 

Ithaka S+R launched our summer internship program in 2018. Over the past three years, the program has served 15 interns from a wide range of backgrounds, contributing to projects across Ithaka S+R, JSTOR Labs, and Reveal Digital. Our program takes a project-centric approach to the internship experience, where interns are fully embedded within a team and work closely with a designated manager to produce specific deliverables over a 10-12 week period. Our expectations of our interns are high; they must be able to quickly dive into complex projects and operate independently. We have derived great value from the perspectives and skills that our interns have brought to our work, including during this past summer.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, we were in the midst of hiring for our summer internship positions. While across the country many internship and employment opportunities for students suddenly evaporated, we felt that it was more important than ever to move forward with our planned internships. Maintaining our internship program is both mission-aligned and contributes to expanding entry-points to ITHAKA in support of diversity and inclusion. Nonetheless, the Summer 2020 internship program looked a little different from previous years. Working closely with our Work Life and Culture team, we quickly pivoted our fully in-person internship program to virtual. This required close consideration of what needs interns as well as intern managers would have to ensure success.

We’ve learned many lessons over the past three years, and here I highlight three key takeaways that contributed to success this summer:

  1. Including a mixture of opportunities for structured and organic interactions with a wide-range of ITHAKA staff is essential for interns to network, especially in a virtual environment.
    From the start, we designed an internship program that included structured networking opportunities for interns to meet senior staff throughout Ithaka S+R. We wanted our interns to be exposed to different aspects of our work, beyond their immediate manager and project. These structured interactions turned out to be key to the interns’ experience in a virtual internship. Additionally, the interns’ individual managers ensured that interns were fully immersed in project meetings, team meetings, Ithaka S+R staff meetings, our ITHAKA staff meetings, and any other team building activities that occurred organically during the summer. Feedback gathered in our exit survey indicated that our summer interns felt a high sense of #belonging, and valued the connections they forged throughout our team.
  2. Developing a cohort-based model has promoted peer learning and support. Moving to a cohort-based model was a strategic decision during our summer 2020 program. Previously, we informally encouraged interns to interact with each other, but the structure of the program tended to emphasize the intern-manager relationship over peer-to-peer relationships. Whereas in previous summers interns onboarded with their manager on an ad hoc basis, our Work Life and Culture team developed a comprehensive cohort-based onboarding process for our summer interns. This approach established stronger relationships among interns, and they reported continuing to develop these bonds throughout the internship. Given this success, we will continue to develop structured opportunities for interns to interact as a cohort in future iterations of our program.
  3. Built-in opportunities for self-reflection help interns get the most out of their experience.
    Learning how to articulate skills is an essential part of transitioning from being a student to the workforce. In some cases, interns may struggle to find the right words to describe their accomplishments. As part of our program, we asked interns to deliver a final presentation on a project they worked on to the full Ithaka S+R staff at the end of their experience. The objective of this presentation is to highlight the interns’ valuable contributions across our team, provide them a space to reflect on what they accomplished during the summer, and practice delivering a public presentation. As part of our work to expand the cohort-model, we also hope to build on this foundation to provide further opportunities for self-reflection, especially exercises that support interns articulating the skills they developed. Our goal is to ensure that interns, whatever their next steps may be, are well-equipped to leverage their experience at ITHAKA in their future careers.

Running a robust internship program is no small feat, requiring significant staff time from a broad range of stakeholders. From developing trusted relationships with feeder schools, to training first-time managers, to assessing each cohort’s experience, managing the program requires organization and year-round attention. Yet the short-term and long-term rewards more than offset this investment. Our internship program has served as a hiring pipeline with seven of our interns transitioning to an extended internship, or full-time employment. As importantly, internships help infuse our project teams with unique perspectives and skills, help increase awareness of our brand, provide development opportunities to full-time staff who may get their first management experience working with an intern, and contribute back to our communities by developing the next generation of talent.

I am excited to share that three of our former interns with Ithaka S+R, recently contributed to a three-part blog post series focusing on the value of graduate students engaging in internships. As students attending CUNY’s Graduate School PhD program, Justin Beauchamp, Queenie Sukhadia, and Maya Godbole highlight their reasons for participating in an internship, their experiences, and the value of what they learned interning with us at ITHAKA.