Starting a career while still in college

Illustration by Aleah Green

Internships have long been seen as a great way for young adults to gain new skills, connections and real-world experience within a specific career path. For this reason, many college students begin looking for internship opportunities as early as their freshman year.

There are many internships offered in Flagstaff during the school year. However, finding the right internship to fit a student’s preferences can be challenging with so many to choose from.

Janea Byrne, internship coordinator at NAU’s Career Development office, said a great place to start is Handshake, NAU’s online recruitment system. On Handshake, students can find basic information about who is hiring, prerequisites for certain positions and directions on how to apply. Byrne said that while an average Google search may provide internship options, Handshake has more opportunities catered to NAU students. In addition, the internships listed on Handshake have been approved by Career Development staff as being aimed toward valuable learning.

“The key to a quality internship program is that it is about learning,” Byrne said. “An internship program should not be aimed at hiring free labor.”

Byrne said that aside from increasing employability, internships are a great way to test certain fields of work. Internships can help students figure out if they are comfortable with a specific career path and may even inspire them to switch to a new one. Keith Brekhaus, constituent services representative for Congressman Tom O’Halleran, explained that he interviews students of all different majors and experience levels during the intern hiring process. He said one intern he hired switched her major to political science because she realized she had a real passion for the type of work she was exposed to during her internship at O’Halleran’s office.

“I think these internships allow students to work in an environment that is different from a lot of other work environments,” Brekhaus said. “This access is unique and can change a student’s perspective.”

Other internship opportunities allow interns to use the skills they already have to assist companies in any way they can. This is true for an internship offered over the summer at St. Mary’s Food Bank in Flagstaff. St. Mary’s Community Engagement Manager Ceara Chirovsky explained that interns are extremely helpful to the organization because they bring new ideas and reach younger audiences.

“Sometimes we fill specific intern positions, but because interns are so helpful to us we try to let them pick their own adventure,” Chirovsky said. “This allows the interns to improve upon the skill set they already have, but in a real-world environment.”

Byrne said one of the most important parts of applying to internships is how a student presents themselves to the employer, in order to make them different than other candidates.

“Seeking out valuable internships is the first step, but properly preparing for an internship is just as important,” Byrne said. “Having really strong application materials is really going to set you apart, especially in this digital age when you’re likely just applying online.”

Brekhaus said it is important to aim the cover letter toward the position you are applying for. This can be as simple as changing a couple of sentences so that the introduction addresses the company it is being sent to. While a cover letter and resume strength are not a dealbreaker for Brekhaus when hiring interns, he said it could be the deciding factor when picking between two similar candidates.

Byrne explained that beyond strong application materials, networking is also important. This is especially true if a student is looking for an internship that isn’t offered locally.

“If a student were looking to spend the summer in New York as an intern, knowing some people in the area could be very helpful,” Byrne said.

Chirovsky advocated for the importance of researching internships of interest in order to make sure they benefit both the intern and the company.

“A possible applicant who researches an internship position before applying will have an idea of what the employer is looking for,” Chirovsky said. “They may realize that certain positions do not fit their skill set or areas of interest.”

As Byrne said, internships are meant to be a learning experience. They are a chance to assess the skills learned in school and hopefully add to a student’s resume and experience. Like the summer internship opportunity at O’Halleran’s office and the child nutrition summer internship at St. Mary’s, there are plenty others available for NAU students who are attending this school year.