Summertime scramble: UK students adapt to major changes in internship plans

James W. Stuckert Career Center on Rose Street on University of Kentucky’s campus in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Jordan Prather | Staff

Sarah Michels

The economy was thriving, the job market better than ever. College students were applying and getting accepted into their dream internships. Everything pointed to an amazing summer filled with career-building experience and networking. 

That is, until COVID-19 hit.

In the months since the coronavirus turned into a global pandemic, the future has become very uncertain for college students. Firms and companies have been forced to shift their priorities and watch their profit margins closely. Internships were made virtual, cut short or eliminated entirely for this summer. . 

According to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey cited by a Wall Street Journal article, 16% of employers had cancelled their internships and another 23% were thinking about cancelling them as of April 17, 2020. 

Consequently, many UK students counting on these internships for academic credit, valuable experience or a steady income have been left scrambling for a way to adapt to their new situations. 

For journalism majors like Kendall Howard, completion of an internship is required to graduate.

Howard had accepted an internship in Los Angeles with ESPN this summer. He was going to work with production, but unfortunately, the internship’s focus was hands-on work experience – so ESPN opted to cancel the internship rather than make it virtual. 

Luckily, Howard said he organized his schedule in a way that he can complete an internship this fall semester before his December graduation. 

Other students with majors that require internships or other experiential credits have been more thrown by the sudden changes.

Howard said that while on one hand, it would be nice for students like him to be able to bypass the internship requirement in light of COVID, he doesn’t think that’s a perfect solution. He said that the experience students gain through internships is crucial to securing a good job upon graduation. 

“There’s probably not going to be a chance for some people to get that type of internship or to get the experience they really wanted,” Howard said. “I think there should be alternative options created so that the students can still get some good experience.”

Many big companies, including Facebook, Humana, Google and PepsiCo, have moved internships online in an attempt to create meaningful alternative experiences while keeping everyone safe. 

That’s what happened to Payton Vogelgesang’s summer plans. Vogelgesang, an accounting and marketing major, was accepted into both the PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) Elevate and Deloitte programs, leadership seminars designed to introduce potential future employees to the Big Four accounting firms’ company cultures before they intern the following summer. 

Vogelgesang chose the PwC program, which will now be conducted through Zoom or Google Hangout forums. 

“Usually the summer after you intern, they offer you a full-time job, so this is a really big decision,” Vogelgesang said. 

The seminar includes three hours of programming during which future interns hear from employees and partners to learn about the company culture and meet their fellow interns. 

Unfortunately, Vogelgesang said, it’s much harder to get a true feel for whether one actually fits into the company environment in this situation.  

“I feel like anyone, any company, can put together a really good presentation, but you really talk to the people individually to get a better idea of the culture,” Vogelgesang said.

She said she plans to meet and connect with members of PwC on her own time due to the limitations of group Zoom meetings. Whether it’s connecting on LinkedIn, meeting for coffee or making separate calls beyond the program, Vogelgesang said she is doing everything she can to network. 

Others are choosing to use this extended break as just that—a break. 

Engineering major Halley Burge originally had a summer and fall co-op with GE Aviation starting in May. Now, the start date has been pushed to July and moved online for the summer months. 

Burge said that it’s been a nice change of pace to have time to just relax and spend time with her family before her final year at UK. 

“I’ve been doing internships and jobs ever since I got into engineering, so I haven’t had more than three weeks at home, and now I’m getting three or four months,” Burge said. “I’m just going along with the ride.”

While Burge said she does wish she had a steady income this summer and had been looking forward to moving to Cincinnati for her internship, she said that it’s a blessing that she has a co-op at all, even if it is virtual. 

“With everything that’s going on, I could have easily lost it, just like that,” she said. 

Antonia Mordino, an economics major who graduated virtually this spring, lost her internship just over a quarter-way through. 

Mordino was eight weeks into her seven-month spring and summer internship at Disney when she was suddenly sent home. 

On Saturday, March 14, Disney sent out an email to all the students in the program notifying them that Monday was the last day of work and that they needed to be moved out of the Disney housing by Wednesday.  

Mordino had been working full-time at the World of Disney store, the largest single retail Disney store in the world. She said she had just gotten used to her new environment when COVID closed the amusement park indefinitely. 

“It was the biggest dream I had for a long time,” she said. “To be able to go to my favorite place in the world and hang out there and be paid for it.” 

Now that she’s home, Mordino said it’s been a challenge to find summer jobs or opportunities since nobody is hiring and most internship deadlines were months ago. 

She will attend George Mason University Antonio Scalia Law School starting in the fall. Mordino said she has been using some of her new free time to find an apartment in D.C. and get a head start on some of the coursework. 

“Coming home and not really having any goals or plans has really been a struggle for me. That’s why I’ve turned my focus completely on law school,” Mordino said. 

Some students didn’t lose their internship but lost other major-specific opportunities. 

Elementary education major Ellen Ward said that most of her classmates were unable to complete their site hours as normal due to the closure of schools. 

Instead, UK’s College of Education allowed students to complete their hours by earning their Google certification, an intense online training on how to integrate technology into the classroom as a learning tool. 

Ward said that while spending time in schools is vital to understanding classroom dynamics and honing teaching skills, the Google certification is also very valuable to future employers. 

“Just being in the classroom is important and to do that properly you just kind of have to be in the classroom,” she said. “But overall, I definitely feel like I’ve gotten something great out of the quarantine.” 

The University of Kentucky has been working on ways to help students adjust their plans in light of their lost opportunities. 

Todd Stoltzfus, program director for service learning and community partnerships within the Stuckert Career Center, has helped connect UK students with community non-profits they might be interested in helping out. 

In April, Stoltzfus and his colleagues at the Center for Service-Learning and Civic Engagement used survey data to compile the Community Organizational Needs Database, which aggregates Lexington non-profits’ needs in one place. 

The database includes over 60 types of needs, from accounting and business-planning to marketing, grant writing and research. There are micro-internships, remote internships, volunteering and service-learning opportunities available at many of the organizations. 

However, the level of guidance and oversight that typically comes with these opportunities is more limited in light of COVID. 

“Students really have to be self-directed and work independently to make it successful,” Stoltzfus said. “It takes a little more effort on the students’ part and on the organization’s part to make these things successful.” 

Ray Clere, director of the Stuckert Career Center, has also been talking to students about potential new summer opportunities as their previous plans have fallen through. 

“Students may now have more time on their hands and we are encouraging students to consider other ways they can engage in skill-building and enhance their knowledge base in areas they wouldn’t have otherwise,” he said. 

Clere said this is the perfect time for students to take open online classes from websites like Coursera, pursuing new knowledge and skill development in subjects that may have previously been difficult to find time for, but that have always interested them. 

For those who are still searching for a job or internship, Clere recommends checking out the UK Handshake career management platform or UK’s Parker-Dewey micro-internship program. Many of the internship postings offer students new skills and experience in a remote or hybrid environment, Clere said. 

He also suggests volunteerism and service, provided that students have carefully considered these opportunities’ safety conditions.  

Grace Ragain, a recent College of Ag alum who works with Stoltzfus, has created non-profit maps of Lexington and Kentucky, which include over 500 and 1500 non-profits that students can filter through, respectively. Students who wish to volunteer can easily contact these organizations using the direct links the maps provide. 

Clere said that he has been very encouraged by the success and creativity of the university and community partners during this time in maintaining operations. 

“We’re probably more adaptable than we ever thought we were,” he said. “I think there’s been a lot of resilience during what has been an exceptionally challenging time period for the campus and community.” 

UK students like Kendall Howard are not letting the cancellation of their internships slow them down at all. This summer, he said he is going to work at Costco, record episodes for his three podcasts and write for Mix Magazine, an urban online newspaper. 

“I plan to be busy,” Howard said. 

ESPN told Howard that they are allowing people in his position to intern the summer after they graduate since they lost their original chance. However, Howard hopes to skip the internship step altogether by applying for ESPN Next after he graduates, which would allow him to start as a full-time producer for ESPN as early as January.  

Whatever happens, Howard said that he will find a way to adapt, because it’s the only thing he can do. He said he would tell others in his position to try to do the same, remembering that they are not alone in this setback.  

“It’s kind of hard for everyone right now, but we are going to get through this,” Howard said. “Don’t worry, stay strong, stay focused, don’t lost sight of what you plan on doing for your future and just keep going.”