The power of corporate partnerships remains undervalued and under-executed across higher education.
But micro-internships can form a viable bridge for students to cross from academia to employment. To learn more about that, we explored an innovative program at Governors State University, a majority-minority public university of about 5,000 students located in the suburbs of Chicago.
What Is a Micro-Internship?
“At Governors State University (GSU), we say that innovation is in our DNA,” Elaine told us, “so we’re always alert to ways that we can serve students in creative ways.”
The micro-internship came to Elaine’s attention because of Jeffrey Moss, an entrepreneur who started Parker Dewey, a nationwide project that recruits companies to offer students an opportunity to compete to do paid online projects.
“That’s what we mean by a micro-internship,” Elaine said. “It’s something that doesn’t last a whole semester or a whole summer. I suppose in the natural parlance of things, you’d call it a gig. These are gig internships”.
These micro-internships work especially well for adult students who already have jobs but who need to connect their existing skills and their majors with their future career development.
Both the companies that offer the micro-internships and the participating students find the concept fits well with their needs. Employers need all sorts of projects done, and these projects don’t necessarily need to be assigned to their full-time employees. In fact, they typically want their full-time employees doing other things. They also don’t have to commit to a student for a full summer. Instead, they’re allowing the student to show capacity and the ability to do a project, and that means the student can also apply for other projects.
“So from the student’s point of view,” Elaine said, “it’s a low-risk way to try something out, to be successful, we hope, and then through the student’s undergraduate career, to do perhaps a number of these micro-internships and have a resume that is going to be very attractive to future employers, including those companies that have offered the micro-internships.”
Why Should Students Start Micro-Internships Early in Their Academic Career?
GSU’s Center for the Junior Year implements the micro-internship program. The Center for the Junior Year exists to prepare freshmen and sophomores to be juniors. Its motto is “Mission before major.”
By their junior year, students have selected a major they find exciting, but they are often concerned about how they will use that major to put bread on the table.
“We’re very committed (to) students who are majoring in the humanities,” Elaine told us, “in English, which is my field, in history and so forth, to understand that they are capable of doing these micro-internships even if something is labeled ‘marketing.”
GSU discourages students from committing to a major too early so they have a chance to develop a broad vision and personal mission. When the school discovered the possibility of micro-internships, its leaders expected these projects to serve as a concrete way for students to connect their exploration of majors with paid gigs to try out their skills.
Student Feedback on Micro-Internships
“We started out with an ad hoc approach,” Elaine said, “and I’ll just tell all of your listeners, that’s not the way to do it.”
At that time, several faculty members and administrators served as mentors to students. One or two students tried it out. The school soon realized this wasn’t an effective approach.
“We needed to be structured about it because the learning opportunity is something that we have to take full advantage of,” Elaine explained.
If a student is selected for one of these very short internships, they have to understand their obligations. It’s a great way to help students develop soft skills such as doing things on time, doing them thoroughly, and being responsive to an employer.
Staff members from several GSU units work together to help students understand the concept and then go online to see what’s available. Peers and faculty both help students navigate the process.
“Under the Parker Dewey approach,” Elaine said, “(student applicants) are going to be competing with other students who will be applying for the same projects. The requirement is to write a really short pointed application. That’s a writing test that is not something that they may be used to.”
The GSU team helps students prepare to write those applications along with preparing the student to fulfill their obligations to the project if they are selected. It’s a tremendous teaching moment.
Next-Steps Advice for Institutions Exploring Micro-Internships
Want to explore a micro-internship program at your school?
“Go to the Parker Dewey website,” Elaine said. “I’ve learned about some other frameworks for micro-internships. I just heard at a conference that … one university … has asked the alumni group to come up with some micro-internships that would be exclusively for the students at that university.”
That sounds like a great idea, but starting an entire program from scratch might prove too challenging for many schools to carry out.
For now, Parker Dewey is the place to go.
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