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Remote work, changed plans: How students adapted summer internships

July 30 was National Intern Day, a holiday many interns experienced not in a New York City skyscraper or Washington think tank, but over Zoom, Slack, Microsoft Teams or any other technology their workplaces used to connect employees across states and time zones.

Other students were not able to experience the internships they had so carefully planned. At a time when college students are facing significant challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students were also hit with partially or entirely cancelled summer internships.

Some internship programs quickly adapted their programming, employing creative virtual strategies and adjusting expectations for productivity. Many students, however, had their programs canceled or experienced increased difficulty finding an internship at all.

For interns working with a program based at Duke, there was an additional obstacle: Duke’s funding policies. Duke does not allow programs to directly pay undergraduates living outside of North Carolina through its compensatory payroll. These programs would have instead had to hire students through a third-party provider, which would have taken a significant cut of the funds, said Laura Howes, director of Bass Connections.

Some programs were approved to pay students via a non-compensatory program, she said. Students receiving non-compensatory payments are not considered Duke employees and instead receive the funds for “educational enrichment opportunities.” Non-compensatory payments are limited to student work that does not provide benefits to faculty members, according to a Duke website

The limits on eligibility for the non-compensatory payroll constrained Duke programs’ ability to compensate many undergraduates who interned from home. 

Although some Bass Connections teams were able to continue remotely, many projects with substantial lab-based research or field work had to postpone work that was originally planned for the summer, Howes said. Project teams that were expecting to travel were able to adjust their budgets to support their realigned goals, and they will still be able to use that funding for potential travel later on in the project.

In addition to Bass Connections, two of Duke’s signature summer offerings—Data+ and Story+—had to adapt to a virtual structure, as students had moved home months before the programs were scheduled to start.

Story+ still provided funding awards to all student researchers, and the programs were able to bring on more students this summer. However, the program changed the key hourly component of the program: Students worked part-time this summer.

“We feel strongly that [part-time] not only reflects a more realistic work expectation and offers more flexibility in our current moment, but it also removes the ‘you must work full time’ framework of productivity that burdens so many of us—we don’t want any student thinking they need to perform at a business-as-usual rate of performance right now,” wrote Amanda Starling Gould, co-director of the Story+ Humanities Research Program.

Like Story+, Data+ has also converted to a remote program. Data+ teams primarily used Slack and Zoom to collaborate across time zones on various projects. Students in Data+ still received the usual stipend—$5,000 for 10 weeks—for the full-time program.

“I understand we're one of the few programs running this summer. A lot of people decided to either reduce what they're doing or not do it, but we decided that we could provide, actually, a pretty enriching experience online,” said Ariel Dawn, events and communications specialist at the Rhodes Information Initiative, which runs Data+.

Some industries, such as journalism, typically start recruiting for summer internships much later in the school year, said Shelley Stonecipher, associate director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. As a result, journalism internships were particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis and there was an increase in the number of students who either were not able to secure internships or had their internships fall through.

The DeWitt Wallace Center expanded co-curricular offerings through the summer to serve as an opportunity for students who were not able to find other journalism internships. The center opened up The 9th Street Journal, a news site run by the DeWitt center with writing by student reporters, to summer opportunities to provide a newsroom experience for students. 

“What we decided to do was to expand The 9th Street Journal and make it more open to more students to use as an internship opportunity,” Stonecipher said. “And it gives them the ability to report as they would in a regular newsroom and to do real reporting and be edited by professional editors, and have a newsroom experience.”

For students who had originally planned to work with Duke programs that fund external internships and independently led research projects, the requirements for remote summer programs forced some students to radically alter their plans for this summer, often just weeks before they expected to start.

Duke’s Career Center was able to support a similar number of students through the Internship Funding Program, according to Leigh Ann Muth-Waring, assistant director of employer relations at the Career Center. The Career Center provides funding from $600 to $3,000—for internships across various fields, as long as the internship is unpaid or pays less than $1,500, she wrote.

Muth-Waring wrote that the Career Center worked with internship supervisors to convert in-person internships into remote formats. If students were unable to convert their internship, the Career Center worked with students to find a position that would meet the program’s requirement of a remote format.

“The Career Center only rescinded funding if a student voluntarily declined their award,” she wrote. “In this situation, the declined funding was reallocated to another student who had applied to the program.”

The Sanford School of Public Policy also provides funding for students who receive financial aid and are taking on an unpaid or low-paying internship, said Elise Goldwasser, director of undergraduate internships at Sanford. While students would typically receive funding based on a cost-of-living index, students received a flat rate this summer regardless of where they were working.

Other students had spent months carefully planning independent research or exploration programs for the summer. As COVID-19 drastically altered the landscape of what would be possible in the summer, students had to rapidly adapt their plans to meet the requirements for remote internships.

Suzanne Shanahan, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics, wrote that students working on projects through the Kenan Summer Fellows program had to decide whether they wanted to continue their planned work virtually or pursue another project for the summer.

“Some students needed to retool altogether,” she wrote. “One example would be a student who planned to interview homeless populations in Canada. That doesn’t work remotely, so she is doing a series of chalk art installations where essential workers are located.”

Despite the abrupt shift to remote summer internships, some programs have gained valuable experience from moving their activities online. In the future, remote summer projects could help these programs reach students who are not able to stay in Durham for the summer.

“If we can all get together, we definitely prefer that,” Dawn said. “But there might be one or two that are actually going to be virtual regardless, so that these teams can work together internationally. So we've definitely realized that we can adapt and maybe even expand the program even more with some of the things we've learned.”

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