Students in the professional fields have for years listened to professors and career advisers drone on about the importance – indeed, the necessity – of a solid undergraduate internship experience.
But more of their liberal-arts oriented peers may soon be getting in on the action, as institutions expand their focus to emphasize the importance of internships across all majors, and some even make the experience a requirement for graduation.
The College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y. has done just that. After a voluntary internship course in the department gained traction, Saint Rose decided to make internships mandatory for all English majors, starting with students who enrolled in 2007. And as those students are entering the job market, officials thus far have been pleased with the results.
“English is always one of those decisions and majors where students take it because they really enjoy it, but sometimes they have a very difficult time projecting the skills and talents that they develop there out into the real world,” said Kim Middleton, chair of Saint Rose’s English department. “I think we feel a deep responsibility to our students to make sure they leave here feeling as if they’re not set adrift.”
In some ways, the benefits of an internship for an English student are the same as those for a journalism or business student. Internships help students see practical applications for what they learn in the classroom and clarify their own career aspirations (regarding not just what they want in a job, but also what they don’t want).
But internships can hold special value for students whose future career paths are less defined. Some of the areas in which Saint Rose students are finding internships might not have even occurred to them otherwise – managing social media for a local credit union, for instance. Through such an experience, students can reconcile the realities of a liberal arts education and the 21st-century workplace.
“They understand that their career paths will take twists and turns,” said Ronald Shavers, the Saint Rose internship program coordinator, “but that there’s a difference simply between working and pursuing your career goals. So they learn to keep those long-term goals in mind without it being purely aspirational or abstract.” (The 400-level internship course also includes cover letter and resume writing, reflection assignments and the like.)
It’s a fitting endeavor for the Albany, N.Y. institution, whose academic mission of “the full development of the person through a strong liberal arts curriculum” is coupled with the college’s roots in career preparation. At its founding in 1920, the formerly all-women college emphasized training teachers, later expanding to include more professions, such as business.
Middleton was surprised at how hard it was to find other colleges with similar requirements, but data from the research firm Intern Bridge indicate that there are some. In the firm’s 2011 survey  of 20,000 students (about half of whom had interned that year), about 35 percent who interned had majors outside one leading to a professional degree.
Of the 987 English students who interned and said their academic program was in “English language and literature/letters,” 17.5 percent said their academic major required it, 2.1 percent said their institution required it, and 24.4 percent said an internship was an elective for which they could earn credit. For the rest, 63.9 percent, internships remained purely optional.
“They finally get it – that not every English major goes on to be an English professor, that not every philosophy major goes into…. whatever a philosophy major would go into,” said Robert Shindell, director of content and resource development at Intern Bridge. “I just feel that there’s a shift, and that shift is that, I think, colleges and universities understand and are realizing that having a student graduate with some type of professional experience is a benefit to the student and the institution.”
Judging by the Intern Bridge data, institution type doesn’t seem to be a major predictor of internship philosophy. Of the English students whose academic program required them to intern, three-quarters attended either a private college with enrollment of 2,000 or fewer (26.2 percent), a public college with enrollment of 5,000 or fewer (4.9 percent), or a public college that enrolled between 5,000 and 15,000 students (27.9 percent). Most of the students whose institution, not department, required the internship attended small privates (28.6 percent) or large publics (35.7 percent).
Anecdotally, it appears that the number of liberal arts majors that are being required to intern before graduating is on the rise (if still “not commonplace”), said Michael True, the Messiah College Internship Center director who also maintains a listserv for campus internship officials.
Part of the trend relates to the economy, True and others, including Middleton, said – in this job market, it’s inarguable that internship experience can only help. But True also said this shows colleges are listening to employers.
“The general sense that colleges are getting from employers is, 'We want students who have put the rubber to the road, as it were – who have tested out things that they’re learning in the classroom in the world of work prior to them graduating. We want students who come in to hit the ground running,' ” True said. “I think really, an internship now is priceless.”
Clemson University, which offers internship courses across a variety of fields and requires them in some (mainly professional ones), is in the midst of an aggressive expansion of its on-campus internship offerings. By 2020, Clemson aims to have at least 500 opportunities for students to work in myriad areas of the university – students who may have been unsuccessful in finding work off-campus.
“Every student really needs to have some form of an engaged learning experience,” said Troy D. Nunamaker, director of the Clemson internship program. “Our goal is to make sure that we have this spread across all the different majors here on campus. Because we’re a working, breathing organization like any other organization, we have needs across the board. So it creates a nice lab for these students.”
At Saint Rose, the extent to which an internship meets any given criteria about degree or career applicability is less important than its being something the student is interested and invested in. One student interned at the local sports radio affiliate. Others have worked at nonprofits, including the New York State Alliance for Arts Education, while others have landed internships at small publishers and public relations firms.
In explaining the importance of internships for students in the liberal arts, Shindell quoted the reformer John Dewey: Experiential learning opportunities would mean that "the whole pupil is engaged; the artificial gap between life in school and out is reduced."
"Even academicians 100 years ago recognized that the classroom could not be the sole provider of experiences for students to help them transition to the world of work. There had to be something more," Shindell said. "It's like we're coming full circle and coming back to what higher education is and should be. And that is an engagement of the whole student."