The Value of Internships in Higher Education

As a president, I strongly encouraged the practice of internships in students’ junior and senior years. Ideally, I wanted about seventy-five percent of students to participate in an internship before graduation. Recently, I talked to several students who completed internships. These students were energized, to say the least, about what they had learned from their internship experiences.

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With a twinkle in their eyes, most of the students informed me that the internship experiences had brought the text and theories to life. The students stated that it was much more useful and interesting to employ theoretical concepts and to discover how diverse paradigms can solve real problems with other interns and co-workers than to read about problems in a text, hear about them in a lecture hall, or even discuss problems with fellow students– although lively debates do also have significant merit. It seemed that internships, unlike specific classes, allowed students to bring their arsenal of learning outcomes, from various disciplines and experiences, into the work environment.

Moreover, internships allowed students to utilize multiple intelligences, as described by Howard Gardner, to navigate the work environment– further allowing students’ performances to be measured more holistically.

While I listened to these students enthusiastically relate their internship experiences, I smiled both externally and internally. The students viewed these experiences as opportunities. The students’ responses were not surprising. Needless to say, experiential learning has been around for a long time. Many colleges and universities encourage these experiences in a wide range of disciplines including the liberal arts (history, English, and language arts).

The State of Washington defines internships as “a combination of on-the-job training (OJT) and related classroom instruction under the supervision of a journey-level craft person or trade professional in which workers learn the practical and theoretical aspects of a highly skilled occupation. After completing an apprenticeship program, the worker’s journey-level status provides an additional benefit of nationwide mobility at journey level scale.”

Moreover, the concept of learning on the job under the supervision of a master goes back to the Middle Ages. Back then, apprentices were mostly men learning their trade by studying and working with a master for a number of years. Over hundreds of years, apprenticeships, however, evolved and became more structured as colleges and universities grew and defined college credit for them.

Often I hear students talk about the transition from college life to the workforce, the students who have experienced internships seem to make a smoother transition into the workforce. Other students who might have excelled in the class have confessed that their transition into the workforce has been a bit more disjointed. They struggled with workplace etiquette, working in teams, and sometimes just the long hours of a job.

As we continue to refine our instructional design to meet the needs of the 21st century, it is important to look closely at the benefits of internships– some learners excel in these structured but real life experiences.

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