For college students and recent graduates, an internship often is the first foray into the professional world. It’s a time to learn from professionals and begin a career path–all while working and socializing in a new city.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed that. With 16 percent of employers revoking internship offers and PR layoffs, few are fortunate to be interns this summer.
In a way, we’re making history. Not only are we among the first completely remote intern class, but we are learning to provide professional support in a virtual workplace.

An endless series of Zoom meetings

Instead of rushing from urban apartments to work, we awaken in the bedrooms of our childhood homes. From 9 to 5, we sit with laptops in makeshift offices–okay, our cluttered bedrooms or noisy family kitchens–answering email, monitoring media, writing pitches, and drafting releases.
Although we took online courses this past semester, working in an office atmosphere from home is a new territory. It requires patience and concentration. We deal with the constant distractions of pets, parents, siblings, and household chores while convincing everyone around us that yes, we really are working.

Lessons learned

Even working remotely, we’ve found opportunities to interact with high-level professionals, partners, and VPs. Virtual brown-bag lunch meetings provide opportunities to pick the brains of the pros.
We may not be exploring a city, but virtual interactions provide networking opportunities that are vital to internships. In addition to the basics of PR, we’re learning how to adapt.
Here are lessons that have kept us motivated and tips for PR pros to interact with us:

Add movement 

Remote work means long days–and a few nights–in front of a screen. Standing, stretching, walking, or even dancing between Zoom meetings or assignments keeps your brain focused. In addition, it motivates your work and allows you to provide the best content.

Virtually grab coffee

Staff wants to see interns succeed. If you send a simple email asking to pick someone’s brain or just get to know them, you are building your network and showing interest in that person.
Invest your time and energy in someone and they likely will do the same for you.  Virtual internships lack personal connection, but there are ways to make up for that. Virtual coffee may not be exactly like the in-person experience, but it provides a fun way to get to know someone outside of everyday work calls. Also, it’s important to remember that they're stuck at home too.

Always come with a question or two

Throughout the online internship experience, it’s especially important to ask questions. Always. You’re not being a pest. Everyone is dealing with working from home and is still trying to figure out the ropes. As interns, we've learned that you can never ask too many questions. You get the information you need and the senior professionals often are flattered that you sought their advice.

What you put in is what you get out

Doing all your work at home emphasizes the need for self-motivation. The temptation to stray is there, even in an office. Yet working and communicating virtually really puts your diligence to the test. Go out of your way to make connections. Take on extra responsibilities. These are keys to building an impactful and professional internship experience.

Tips for PR pros

If it’s not too cheeky, here are the promised tips for PR pros trying to communicate with interns, or anyone starting remotely in the communications field:

Talk with us

Young people are looking for a chance to grow and talk to someone who has made it. Make time to get to know those working for you. Find creative ways to make interactions more personable. Brown-bag lunches via Zoom, Skype chats or conference calls will work. Even if we can’t communicate face-to-face, making the experience as close as possible will really have an impact.
Create a free space in which we can ask questions and over-communicate on Zoom or Slack. We especially like to keep track of our tasks on specialized Slack channels.
Schedule regular meetings to teach us about the company and the profession. Create happy hours to connect employees with us, and to foster an inclusive environment.

A great experience

We thought we’d be in Washington, DC, instead of at home. And interning without exchanging a handshake or attending a professional lunch has its drawbacks.
But remote work has shed light on the importance of fighting distractions and unplugging at day's end. The pandemic also has adjusted our priorities: spending time with family, being healthy, and staying informed have taken on new meaning. All in all, this experience has been incredibly rewarding.
And so every day, we log on to our laptops in search of a chance to make brilliant mistakes and implement these small lessons, learned remotely, that will help us build successful careers.
If everything had gone as planned, Mina Lee would be in Guatemala right now.
The 20-year-old American told VOA the Guatemala trip was part of a program at Princeton University in New Jersey. She began studying history at Princeton in 2018.
But Lee says the coronavirus health crisis completely changed her plans for the rest of this year. Luckily, she already had a part-time job with the technology company GRUBBRR. And the company offered a solution to her problem: a summer internship.
Internships have become increasingly common in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. They provide important work experience to college students. Internships also give students a chance to see what working at a given company is like before they launch their careers.
A growing number of companies have come to expect college students to complete at least one internship if they want to be considered for full-time employment.
Yet the coronavirus has affected the ability of students everywhere to take part in such programs. Studies have shown that half of all internship openings in the U.S. have been cut since the coronavirus started spreading. In Britain, 64 percent of the positions have been cut.
Hundreds of companies, including Airbnb, FedEx, Gap and Disney, have canceled their summer internship programs, one online database reported. The International Labor Organization noted last month that at least one in every six young workers worldwide has stopped working. The United Nations labor agency says the long-term effects of the health crisis could lead to a “lockdown generation” scarred throughout their working lives.
That is why some companies are moving their internships completely online. Amazon is seeking more than 8,000 interns for its summer program. And while many of her friends now have nothing to do, Mina Lee has been able to work for GRUBBRR entirely from her New York home.
“Even if there was a feeling that something was stolen, it’s followed by a feeling of … excitement for what’s going to come next,” Lee said.
Yet some observers worry that an online internship may not be as useful to young people as an in-person experience. And they share concerns about what will happen to students without any internship at all.
In this photo taken on Thursday, June 11, 2020, recent university graduate Sahar Shabani poses for a photograph in London. Shabani, 22, did a three-month remote internship with a development charity based in Thailand from her parents' home in South London
In this photo taken on Thursday, June 11, 2020, recent university graduate Sahar Shabani poses for a photograph in London. Shabani, 22, did a three-month remote internship with a development charity based in Thailand from her parents' home in South London

Edwin Koc is Director of Research, Public Policy, and Legislative Affairs at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. He notes that 22 percent of the companies his group works with have canceled summer internships.
This is troubling for several reasons, he says. It is not just that students might miss out on valuable work experience or a chance to learn new skills. Since the recession of 2008, companies have grown to depend on internships to identify the best candidates for employment. And they also give students a chance to see if the culture of a given company is a good fit for them.
“It really requires the student to kind of network and integrate with the workflow of the organization, get a feel for the organization, the type of people that individual will work with, the comfort level they find working in that kind of environment,” Koc said.
David Jaeger adds that what is happening now is also closely tied to these young people’s future. Jaeger is a professor of economics at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland. He notes that job candidates are more likely to hear back from employers if they have had an internship. But also, companies increasingly expect students to have more than one internship during their college years. And students are more likely to get a second internship if they have already had one.
“So, it takes an internship to get an internship. And the kids … who are in their second or third year of university who aren’t going to have an internship, perhaps their first internship, this summer really could be behind the eight-ball going forward,” Jaeger said.
However, there some people who say the future is not all bad for college students facing an unusual summer.
Rebecca Woolf is the human resources and information director of EUSA Academic Internship Experts. Every year, her group places about 2,000 students from U.S. colleges and universities in academic internships in Europe.
All of EUSA’s summer programs have been canceled. And since the programs involve the student’s living and working in a foreign culture, it seems unlikely they will be able to move the programs completely online.
But that does not mean there are no valuable life experiences students can take away from this difficult time, Woolf says. And since the coronavirus crisis is affecting people around the world, these students will not necessarily be treated unfairly.
“If everybody’s experiencing the same barriers right now, nobody’s falling behind,” she said.
I’m Pete Musto.