For the past 18 months, we’ve all been increasingly living in a virtual world. We shop online more, talk to our friends online more, recreate in more digital and fewer IRL ways. The same is true for undergraduate business schools students trying to gain professional experience through internships — as well as their schools and potential employers, all of whom are continuing to adapt to the chaotic and shifting circumstances of pandemic life.
What have those circumstances meant for internships, a crucial element of the business school experience — perhaps the most crucial? Through necessity, schools have pivoted to virtual internships — and for some, that has meant jumping into international roles, crossing borders at a safe distance.
This past year and a half has shown everything is possible, even if that meant working for a company over five thousand miles away. And doing it from mom’s couch.
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Poets&Quants spoke to a Villanova Business School student, Vivian Bear, an economics major who completed her internship at a company in Prague — from her grandparent’s house in Florida. One of the challenges she encountered during her time at DDC Financial Group was dealing with her American accent when calling agency clients’ across Europe. “I was cold-calling people in Italy, Spain, as soon as they heard my American voice they just immediately hung up because they thought I was a salesperson,” Bear says.
Bear also had a different and “weird” phone area code. So she turned to Google to find a way to greet and introduce herself in other languages.
Problem solved. And a whole world opened up before her.
“DDC was so accommodating with working virtually,” Bear says of her summer employer. “It gave me so many opportunities to work internationally with so many different people in so many different countries.”
Bear’s experience echoes other students’, says Brenda Stover, assistant dean at Villanova’s O’Donnell Center for Professional Development. “Students, in general, have been very appreciative that there continued to be opportunities to bridge theory to practice to gain hands-on experience,” Stover says.
The summer of 2021 became a more promising time for virtual internships as students looked at the success stories of other students who participated in international internships. Villanova had two students intern remotely with companies in Spain, another in New Zealand, two in South Africa, two in Prague, and one in London.
“This summer, I think the big difference is that students have their ‘sea legs,’ and are more comfortable and acclimated to the virtual environment,” Stover contends, adding that after a year of navigating online classes purely remotely, they felt more compelled to apply for virtual internships.
“I think that there was a greater inclination on the part of our students to do something that that seemed a little bit riskier last summer.”
ACCOMMODATING THE VIRTUAL AS PART OF THE LEARNING EXPERIENCE
The University of Southern California’s office of undergraduate international programs also worked toward the same goal: for students to have “a valuable and enriching learning experience.” Guided by that goal, the school facilitated virtual internships for 12 students in London, Sydney, and Hong Kong.
Onma Lwin, director of the Marshall School’s Undergraduate Career Services, says her office saw a rise in interest this year in interning for international corporations.
“While we do not keep an exact count of applications because the students apply directly, we have seen more internship opportunities abroad posted by multinational companies and a high level of student interest in those opportunities.”
Sean O’Connell, director of USC’s undergraduate international programs, shares the experience of some students at USC doing virtual internships at multinational companies.
“We had a student in London interning in Hong Kong, with the HK office overnight London time- intern meetings were scheduled at 3 am London time.”
O’Connell says they needed to go that extra mile as the students worked in different time zones. “Ultimately, we are an educational office, and our goal is for students to have a valuable and enriching learning experience.”
2021: A DIFFERENT STORY
A year into the pandemic, and by the summer of 2021, more USC students opted to apply for international internships.
O’Connell describes that after a year operating remotely, it became the “standard operating procedure.” “We had our largest application pool to date,” says O’Connell, as the university had over 150 students interning remotely for companies in Latin America, South Africa, Europe, and Asia.
In pre-pandemic years the office of once USC students apply they undergo an interview process to find the corporation that meets the students’ expectations and other aspects like location. The office also offers financial assistance, “almost $250,000 each year to help students cover costs associated with the program,” O’Connell adds. “Our office continues to act as an intermediary, even after they have been assigned to a company.”
A major bugbear that schools and students alike have had to contend with: “zoom fatigue.” Villanova’s Vivian Bear describes her experience going through this.
“I was feeling the Zoom fatigue after like a month in this internship just because everyone uses a different platform whether it’s zoom or Skype or WhatsApp or Microsoft Teams.”
Bear says both the corporation she was paired with and her school were supportive of these types of issues despite the difficulties. “We had monthly meetings with advisors from the business school and the class.. you just have time to ask questions and talk about your experience and see if other people were having the same struggles that you were having, you [were] able to talk to, [them] about it.”
O’Connell says USC Marshall continually assisted the students with these issues as navigating the online world space, especially those who never had an internship prior to the pandemic.
“For many of these students, this is their first work experience,” he says, “and keeping them on task, engaged, and understanding the cultural dynamics is challenging in person, but especially online where Zoom burnout is a real issue.”
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