Another casualty of the coronavirus: summer internships

  • >>David Yaffe-Bellany, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-05-23 12:50:24 BdST

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Lydia Burns, a recent University of Louisville graduate whose internship was called off, in Louisville, Ky, May 7, 2020. Like so much else, summer internships have been upended by the pandemic, with hundreds of companies cancelling their programs and rescinding offers. (Luke Sharrett/The New York Times)

When she found out in mid-March that she had landed an internship with an education nonprofit in Washington, Lydia Burns, a senior at the University of Louisville, called her mother to celebrate. The whole world was falling apart, but here, finally, was good news.

“Mom, guess what?” she said. “Things are amazing!”

The euphoria lasted all of a week. As she worked on a paper the next Tuesday, Burns got an email from the nonprofit: The internship was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. She burst into tears.

“I feel like I had such a strong plan,” she said. “I knew what I was going to do — I had been working for it all of college. Now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

For millions of college students, internships can be a steppingstone to full-time work, a vital source of income and even a graduation requirement.

But like so much else, summer internships have been upended by the pandemic, with a wide range of major companies, including tech firms like Yelp and entertainment behemoths like the Walt Disney Co., cancelling programs and rescinding offers.

Students who had locked down internships as early as September are now jobless. Others who had hoped to experience an office setting for the first time are instead looking for work at fast-food restaurants. Many low-income undergraduates, already saddled with student loans, are concerned that a jobless summer could put them at a disadvantage in future application cycles, making it harder to find full-time work after graduation.

Some companies are continuing to pay interns to work from home, sending corporate laptops in the mail and holding get-to-know-you sessions over Zoom. But students fear that remote internships will not afford the networking opportunities that can make spending a summer in an office so valuable, especially for interns who have few professional contacts.

“You pick up a lot of subtle clues about how to behave in that profession, how to communicate like an engineer, how to work in teams like a nurse,” said Matthew Hora, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin who has studied internships. “Students are going to be missing that.”

Cassandra Dopp, a junior at the University of South Carolina, felt the effects of the pandemic earlier than most US college students: She was studying abroad in Rome when the coronavirus swept Italy.

Dopp, a business major, returned home in March and was set to work for Geico this summer at the company’s headquarters in Fredericksburg, Virginia. But as she sat in her childhood bedroom last month, Dopp got a call from a human-relations official at the company, informing her the internship was cancelled.

Many of her friends had already gotten similar calls. But Dopp has always prided herself on keeping organised and planning for the future. Now, she has no idea how she’ll stay occupied after final exams, let alone what she’ll do in July or August.

“I’d never put myself in this position to not have a plan for my summer and my future,” she said. “It was a big letdown. It’s disappointing.”

The cancellations have cut across virtually all industries, from media to technology to finance. But predictably, the industries that have suffered the most during the pandemic — travel, retailing, hospitality — have had especially large numbers of cancellations.

Connor Machon, a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, accepted an internship at American Airlines in late September, turning down several other offers. He got his first inkling that the program might be in jeopardy when a friend who was set to work at Southwest Airlines had an offer rescinded in March.

A few days later, he learned that his internship was also being cut. Over the next weeks, Machon kept busy applying for dozens of other positions and sending more than 100 networking emails. Ultimately, he secured an internship at a startup in Austin, earning $15 an hour.

“At this point, I was really open to anything, as long as I was being paid,” he said.

Many students will also miss the chance to spend a couple of months in the real world, away from the cloistered environment of a college campus.

Irene Vázquez, a junior at Yale, is interning for a small publisher based in New York. Months ago, Vázquez had envisioned the summer as a test to “see if the whole East Coast tiny apartment thing was going to be viable down the road.” Instead, she’s going to spend the summer working remotely from her childhood home in Texas.

“I could be much worse off,” she said. “But it’s certainly not the experience I had planned.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company