A Q&A with Megan Pierson

Mount Holyoke has a long history of engaging students in internships and research projects and, of course, in helping them find jobs once they graduate. Megan Pierson, associate director, experiential learning at the Career Development Center (CDC) discusses how students can land and find funding for meaningful cocurricular opportunities in the summer.

Q: What are the benefits of an internship?

MP: The benefits are many. Internships help students connect their academic program with real-world experience. Students build skills and learn about where they want to go professionally. Professional experience and exposure during a student’s college career often leads to subsequent internships or job opportunities after graduation. Internships, coupled with meaningful reflection, enable students to create more refined academic and professional choices. Applying for an internship—which includes an assessment of one’s skills and interests, résumé preparation, networking, and interviewing—also provides great practice for the job search process senior year.

Q: How many students pursue internships and research experiences at MHC?

MP: Nearly 70 percent with over 500 each summer.

Q: Where do internship opportunities come from?

MP: There are several sources. The CDC provides access to over 10,000 internships through Handshake, the CDC's customized online resume, internship, and job search recruiting system. This includes unprecedented access to internship and professional opportunities through MHC’s unique Three College employer partnership with Smith and Amherst Colleges. Opportunities through the Three College partnership come directly from employers and MHC alumnae who recruit MHC students for jobs, internships, and research through postings, career fairs, information sessions and interview days. Within Handshake, students also receive access to additional premium subscription databases, career exploration resources, and recruiting relationships with other institutions. For example, the Liberal Arts Career Network (LACN) is an online database of over 30 small, prestigious liberal arts colleges who share internship and job opportunities.

MHC also provides over 50 funded summer internship and research opportunities in the U.S. and abroad that are prearranged by MHC departments and employers with positions reserved exclusively for MHC students. The McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, for example, offers a selection of international internships through the international connections of MHC faculty and alumnae. The Miller Worley Center for the Environment is another fantastic resource with nearly 20 prearranged internship programs on topics of environmental concern, local and global sustainability, and politics and civic engagement, available exclusively to MHC students of every major. In addition, there are exciting research opportunities supported by the sciences, social sciences, and humanities departments.

For a quick sample of the variety of opportunities in Handshake, students can view the Top Ten Internships newsletter, which is available online and is emailed to students monthly. Aside from these opportunities, many students locate opportunities for themselves to meet their own unique interests by networking directly with employers. Faculty, the CDC, the McCulloch Center, and other campus advisors provide support for this process.

While summer internships are popular, there are many high-quality internships and research opportunities during the semester both on and off campus in the local community. This includes the Weissman Center’s Community-Based Learning (CBL) program, which links over 400 Mount Holyoke College students annually with communities through courses, independent studies, internships, and research and service projects that combine learning and analysis with action and social change. Paid student employment opportunities and research are also available on campus with MHC faculty, departments, and over 20 participating nonprofit organizations off-campus. These term-time opportunities build rich professional and community-based skills early in a student’s MHC experience.

Q: How does a student successfully create her own internship?

MP: It all depends on a student’s initiative and planning about how to find an opportunity that meets her goals. Ideally, a student would first determine her academic and career learning goals and other important factors (geographic preference, financial or personal obligations) to meet her own unique needs and interests. She would consider specific industries of interest or employers, and then narrow her focus to a particular type of experience. Through networking, the student markets herself and pitches her idea to a potential employer. The CDC provides resources and one-on-one advising for this process. The student needs to show her passion for the field or opportunity and communicate clearly and coherently how she would make a positive contribution to the organization. That’s what employers are looking for, and they are very receptive to students who are able to communicate their interests, skills, and purpose.

Q: What happens when an internship does not work out as hoped?

MP: That can be a valuable experience too, since students are learning about themselves and what they both like and don’t like. The opportunity to experiment in different career fields enables students to make more refined academic and career choices and gain greater self-awareness of skill strengths. For example, a student may decide she’d rather work in the field than a lab, or prefers to work with people rather than on her own. Experiences that challenge students and push their comfort level often provide greater learning value over time.

Q: Is there funding available for internships?

MP: Yes. Some internship or research opportunities are funded directly by the employer or research host. If a position is unpaid, students may apply for a fellowship through Mount Holyoke’s Universal Application Funding (UAF) program, administered by the Career Development Center. MHC’s UAF program is unique because it provides students with one centralized online application process to reach a variety of fellowship funds, made available from the generosity of MHC alumnae through a variety of departments. The College supports nearly 200 students each summer with over $600,000 in funding for summer internship and research projects through the UAF program. The annual deadline is at the end of February. A suggested timeline, internship workshops, and individual advising appointments are available to help students develop meaningful opportunities and competitive proposals. The average fellowship is $3,000. Approximately 75 percent of all students on internship or research projects receive funding, either from UAF fellowships, faculty supported research, or outside paid internship and research opportunities.

Q: What is the Nexus program?

MP: MHC’s Nexus program enables students to meaningfully link their liberal arts education with their career goals. Nexus gives students a focused, intentional way to connect their academic work with valuable professional experience beyond the gates, through internships, research projects, and summer employment. The Nexus program is available to students as a 16-credit academic minor in seven different thematic interdisciplinary tracks. In addition, any MHC student of any major or minor may enroll in some Nexus programming, such as the 2-credit course Ready for the World: Preparing Your Internship or Research Project, or the 2-credit post-experience course Tying It all Together. This course includes a presentation at the annual LEAP Symposium on internships and research.

Q: What is the LEAP Symposium?

MP: The LEAP (Learning from Application) Symposium is a campuswide fall event where over 150 students present their summer internship and research experiences to 600+ members of the College community. It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to hear from their peers about the internship and research opportunities pursued by MHC women, spanning all academic disciplines around the globe. LEAP enables students to reflect on what they’ve learned over the summer, to consider how the experience fits in with their academic work and career goals, and with what lies ahead for them.

Q: Can internships lead to permanent jobs?

MP: Absolutely. Nearly 50 percent of MHC alumnae reported that their internships definitely helped secure their current situation (i.e., graduate school, employment, etc.). And this is increasingly the case as more employers use their internship pool as a source for recruitment. Even if the internship doesn’t lead to a job with the specific internship employer, the experience and internship search process provides students with critical skills and makes them more competitive for jobs and opportunities of their choice.

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