Monthly Archives: April 2012

Why Internships Matter: An Interview with Dr. Lee Verstandig

Today, internships are an essential part of a student’s education. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting through high school and college without ever having an internship. At CDI, thanks to a generous donation from Archstone, we offer Al Neely Scholarships in memory of longtime CDI friend and supporter Al Neely, who believed in their value. The scholarships provide a stipend to students (who need to earn some money for school) to allow them the opportunity to have an internship. Not every organization or company offers such opportunities, but in this brief interview, Dr. Lee L. Verstanding, a former Dean at Brown University, talks about the importance of internships. Whether paid or not, internships do matter. (A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of the CDI quarterly newsletter, Milestones.)

Q: From your experiences in education and the private sector, what do you see as the greatest value of an internship?

An internship during one’s college years can be a valuable experience especially to provide a perspective and possible focus on career considerations. Internships can provide insights into new fields of interest. Also they can provide an important distinction on one’s resume for when one enters the job market after college. Given the current state of the economy and job market, a solid academic college record (GPA) is extremely important,  but the prospective employer seeks to know more about an applicant beyond grades. When I was an academic dean at Brown University, I recall each late spring seniors would come in to see me saying, “Well, I’m going to graduate soon. What do I do next?” My standard response was: “All we promised you when you were admitted to Brown was a good liberal arts education.” That is still the dilemma today and will continue to confront future college graduates. Therefore, the question is, what can be done during college years to expand prospective early-career interests and areas and enhance job opportunities after college? An important answer to that question is an Internship.

Likewise in my days as an employer in the Congress, Federal Government, and private sector; I interviewed many candidates for positions who were Phi Beta Kappas from Harvard and other fine colleges, but that’s all that their resume reflected about them. What else had they done during their four years at college? What more could one glean about their other capabilities, potential, motivation? An internship experience can provide many different facets about a person, and interests, ranging from the ability to adjust to a new environment, work ethic and experiences, collegiality, etc.

Q: How should students go about identifying and garnering internships during college?

Today, it is extremely unlikely that an internship will provide remunerations. When I was the Chief of Staff to a U.S. Senator, we paid our interns—that was 25 years ago. Paid Congressional internships do not exist today. However, their value leads us to investigate how one goes about identifying and getting an internship. At colleges today, there are probably no Offices of Internships. However, faculty can be a very useful resource. So too can the identification of local small companies and business, clinics, labs, veterinaries, etc. These are potential resources. Thus, it’s important to get to know some of your professors, your neighbors, and people in your community.

In one case, I recall a student who was approached by his biology professor who indicated that there was an internship available at a local medical research institute and urged him to apply.  While the initial internship consisted largely of cleaning  test tubes and other laboratory materials, he got to meet a number of people in different areas of research and see first hand various aspects of medical science. He was invited back the next year. Subsequently, he decided to major in biology and possibly consider graduate studies, and thus had the resources of those acquaintances. This same opportunity might apply to a student majoring in creative writing or literature looking at opportunities to intern as a writer for a local newspaper, magazine, or newsletter; or someone who loves animals becoming an intern at a local veterinary or animal shelter; or someone studying government or political science and interested in politics and public policy contacting local elected officials (mayor, city and county officials, legislators) about an internship experience.

Q: How can students turn the internship experience into post-college jobs?

Clearly, the opportunity to reach out and identify people with whom you are associated at college—e.g. professors, local community businesses, clinics, labs, etc.—should afford opportunities to inquire about the willingness to gain work experience beyond the classroom, develop new and different relationships, and experience different challenges that may in turn lead to new academic and professional interests. At the same time, the student is developing a resume beyond simply the courses taken, an academic major, and solid GPA. The internship work experiences provide additional insights about the student and his/her capabilities as well as a reference for use in seeking future employment beyond college. The internship experience tells a future employer  something more about that applicant and potential. An internship can become an amplifier about oneself, which might open new horizons, areas of interest, and opportunities.

Dr. Verstandig has a Ph.D. in History from Brown University where he served as Associate Dean of The College for 7 years; he subsequently served as Chief of Staff to a US Senator; 7 years in several high level positions in the Reagan Administration including Assistant to the President; and held the position of Senior Vice President for several major trade associations. He currently serves on the CDI Board of Trustees.

CDI at the Cherry Blossom Festival

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Scholar Portrait: Francisco Barrera

Francisco in front of the classroom.

When he moved to the United States from El Salvador in 2002, CDI Scholar Francisco Barrera (CDI class of 2007) faced a difficult transition. As a native Spanish speaker, he often found himself struggling to understand his teachers at Wheaton High School. In his own words, he felt “intimidated and uncomfortable” whenever he was asked to solve problems on the board. His ESOL classes helped, but outside of the classroom, adjusting to life in his new, faster-paced country tested him. As a result, his grades suffered and he ended his freshman year in disappointing fashion.

At home, however, Francisco had a powerful ally in his mother, Rosa. She had been unable to complete her own schooling back home in El Salvador, but she knew the value of a solid education, and she worked long hours to give Francisco and his siblings every opportunity to study. She told them, “There are many paths you can take in life, but only educating yourself guarantees success.” Though his freshman year results had been discouraging, he took his mother’s words to heart.

With her encouragement, Francisco enrolled in Honors and AP courses during his sophomore year. He expected his grades to drop, but instead found that the more difficult classes actually stimulated him. Determined to succeed, he worked hard and his grades soon began to improve, and he became an Honor Roll student his final three years. At the same time, he participated in clubs like Wheaton Works and the Vietnamese Club, ran cross country and track, and joined the tennis team, where he worked his way to 2nd singles his senior year. Outside of school he volunteered at the Gilchrist Center for Cultural Diversity, serving 360 hours of community service as a mentor and translator for immigrant families.

But what Francisco wanted more than anything was to go to college. Through their excited interest, his science teachers had shown him how to love the subject, and now he wanted to do the same for others. Unfortunately, even with his excellent transcript, he didn’t know how to make that goal a reality. At CDI, Francisco learned how to prepare for the SAT, how to create a college list and apply to colleges, and how to get the most scholarships and financial aid. Thanks to the one-on-one mentoring he received from CDI counselors, Francisco was accepted at six colleges—Randolph Macon, St. Mary’s, University of Vermont, Dickinson, Hood, and Goucher—and was offered $162,000 in financial aid.

“CDI taught me that I had options,” he says. “I got a full ride at Goucher through its Educational Opportunity Program for minority students. Without CDI I would not have known about that program.”

Francisco and his students.

Today, Francisco is one of CDI’s first seven college graduates. With a B.A. in Biology from Goucher College, he is fulfilling his dream, teaching 7th and 8th grade Science at Southwest Academy Magnet School in Baltimore County. Because of the support he received from his mother, he knows how important it is for adults to stress education, and he’s taking that message to the next generation. In the classroom, he challenges his students through hands-on activities that generate interest in the topic, as his teachers had once lit a spark in him. Taking a page out of the CDI playbook, he wants his students to make discoveries by themselves, knowing that in order for them to succeed they need to be fully invested in their own education—building a strong foundation, one brick at a time.

Just like Francisco.

A version of this post originally appeared in CDI’s Winter Newsletter.