As the fall semester kicks off, hear from the AU Career Center to understand how their services have changed during COVID-19, what’s in store for remote internships, and why supporting unpaid internships is a make-or-break reality for many students. Read on for insights from the center’s executive director, Gihan Fernando, and Brian Rowe, director of experiential education.
Q: What makes American University’s Career Center unique?
A: One of the signature things about AU is that experiential education is a key part of the student experience. That can be both academic and informal, and it can be internships or other opportunities. In the sciences, the latter often involve labs, research, and working at the side of a professor. With internships, we estimate that only 10-15% of our undergraduate majors require an internship, but on average, 90% of our undergraduates have at least one internship during their time here. We feel the center’s work is truly supported by the entire institution. We help students understand and learn the process of creating satisfying and meaningful work for their lifetimes, and that is very much tied to AU’s educational mission. At AU, the Career Center is under the provost’s office—we feel we are part of the fundamental educational and academic goals of the university.
Q: How did your team pivot last spring during the onset of the pandemic?
A: We were able to quickly get all of our services and materials online; for advising, we already offered the modality to meet virtually as well as in person. One thing we are particularly proud of is our spring career fair. Typically, we hold large career fairs in spring and fall; there was one scheduled for April, and AU went remote in mid-March. We decided to still hold it virtually—we were the only school in the DMV area to do so. It was the first time we’d ever done a virtual fair, and as you can imagine, every virtual platform provider was swamped at that time. But we were successful in holding it in May, and we had 112 employers participate—80 of whom were hiring for full-time positions. That was the best present we could ever give our graduating students! And, for current students, the number of employers hiring for interns at the event was even higher. The next virtual job and internship fair is scheduled for September 16.
Q: How have you been supporting students since then?
A: Over the course of the summer, we’ve offered 10 webinars related to career development during the pandemic, with topics like interviewing and job-searching during difficult times and virtual networking. We also have a suite of COVID-19 career planning resources.
We’ve also been offering virtual “employer-in-residence” sessions, which will continue into the fall. These are a day of networking opportunities with representatives from various companies and organizations, where students get the chance to meet one-on-one with alumni and employer representatives and talk about their career goals. Recently, FEMA participated, as well as AU alumni board member and entrepreneur Michael Worley, SPA/BA ’12; several students found jobs and internships as a result of these and other sessions.
Q: Why does support for experiential learning and internships matter right now? Do you think employers will prioritize remote internship opportunities?
A: With all of the change going on, it may seem that internships would not matter as much, but the opposite is true: it’s even more important to make sure they happen now. We know our students come to the workforce better prepared because of internships, and research indicates that students who have at least one internship have a much higher chance of being employed right after graduation. The 2015 Gallup Purdue study found that holding an internship while in college was a significant factor in whether graduates feel their college prepared them well for life.
We have a strong sense that many employers are offering remote internships rather than pausing internships because of the pandemic. After everything went remote in the spring, 80% of our for-credit, in-person internships converted to remote opportunities, and that was on a moment’s notice. It’s important to remember, however, that this is not a short-term problem. As we go into another recession, there will be more competition in the workforce. Support for internships—especially unpaid internships—will be incredibly important over the next couple of years as the longer-term effects of the pandemic unfold within various industries.
Q: You mentioned unpaid internships—tell me about the Eagle Internship Fund.
A: The Eagle Internship Fund (EIF) enables us to support students with high need by funding unpaid internships. We know that 20-30% of students who receive support from the fund are first-generation college students, and 50-60% identify as being from multicultural backgrounds. With the pandemic, it’s likely there will be many more unpaid internships than in the recent past, and students from vulnerable communities and/or high need backgrounds will feel the impact.
A disproportionate share of government and non-profit internships are unpaid, but these are often critical pathways for AU students to find employment. [By student choice, government and non-profit internships are the most popular at AU.] Internships really do have multiple layers of value—gaining experience, learning what you like and what you don’t like, developing networks, and potentially getting a job with that employer or with someone in their network. You have a reference built in as well as work product—and experience to show for it.
For more AU students to have access to this type of career-building, our ability to fund unpaid internships will likely be a make-or-break factor. And that was true even before the pandemic. We often get notes of gratitude from EIF students, and a common theme is that, if not for the financial support, if not for EIF, they would not have been able to accept an unpaid internship.
Q: Does the center offer other types of financial support?
A: In addition to funding unpaid internships, we are also able to support specific professional development needs through the center’s Professional Development Fund—one of the main needs before the pandemic was professional attire. Being ready for an internship involves a lot of things beyond a student’s capabilities. There are students who don’t own a suit or a briefcase, or who lack enough of the clothing needed for an office environment. We have been able to help with that, as well as travel fees for conferences where students might present research or network. During COVID-19, we have still been able to cover fees for virtual conferences, and we have also been able to help students acquire furniture and other at-home materials they need to work in a professional environment. Some students don’t have desks or their own space. We’ve found they often work on their beds or other places that don’t lend themselves to professional meetings and video calls—and just like professional attire, that matters. It’s another way that we can help AU students do the things that make them AU students.
Q: What motivates the center’s staff?
A: We feel that we get to help people do something that otherwise would not be possible. And if you were to look at the list of internships that we support, it’s an incredible list, and it’s self-selected by students. We don’t decide at the front end for them or have them choose from a list of pre-determined options. They find things that are meaningful to them; everything from White House internships, major agencies, non-profits. In the past two years, we have funded unpaid internships with the Office of Barack and Michelle Obama, Darfur Women’s Action Group, the House of Representative, the Senate, the Council on Foreign Relations, Smithsonian Associates, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), among many others. By being able to fund unpaid internships, we get to play a part in helping students develop networks and skills and have the full AU experience.
For more information about the AU Career Center’s services and upcoming events, visit: american.edu/careercenter
If you'd like to support career development and internship opportunities for AU students, please consider a gift to the AU Career Center. Your gift supports unpaid internship stipends, additional career development needs, and bolsters the center’s programs. GIVE TODAY.