I got my start in sports as a student intern when I was in college, and I was very lucky to have the opportunity. Rather than doing menial tasks to “gain experience,” I was working at a small shop and was thrown right into the action. During my junior and senior years, I served as the main contact for a handful of sports at my alma mater, which gave me the foundation needed to land my first job (and subsequent jobs) in the field.
Fast forward to my current role at Michigan, where I help to oversee a very structured internship program within our communications department. The intern program is part of a larger program under the external operations wing, and it’s something that a group of awesome women at Michigan have worked very hard to build over the last few years.
As someone who has worked both as an intern and as a supervisor, I know firsthand how beneficial the experience can be for both the interns and the staff. As a supervisor, having an extra set of hands to help out is great, but it’s also rewarding to see another person grow and become excited about a field that I’m passionate about. The more interns that we work hard to teach, the better this field becomes.
Balancing interns and an extremely demanding job can certainly be tough, but here are a few tips for building up an internship program and getting the most out of your interns.
Have structure. Setting expectations at the beginning of an internship is a huge key to success. Not every program needs an extremely strict set of rules and guidelines, but all interns should understand what is expected of them. I’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t instruct interns on what to wear or what to bring or how to act, then you will be disappointed when they show up wearing jeans and a t-shirt when the attire should have been business casual. The same can be said about working events. I’ve worked with programs where signing up to work events is a free-for-all, and I’ve worked with programs where interns have a predetermined schedule; whatever format works best for you and your interns is great -- just make sure there is a structure in place, and that the students understand it.
Invest time. During interviews for our intern program, one of the key questions I am asked is: “what sets apart good interns from great interns?” My colleagues and I always answer by saying that the interns who put in the most effort get the most out of their experience and are afforded the best opportunities. The flip side of that, however, is that supervisors need to take the time and effort to teach their interns new skills. Whether it be formal group tutorial sessions or guided 1-on-1 instructional time, spending quality time teaching interns how to use a certain software or complete a certain task is crucial to their development and, in turn, their success. Finding the time to spend on teaching and instruction is often difficult, but carving out the time is worth it, because it will enable you to offer more difficult tasks and assignments in the future.
Be patient. Some interns will “just get it” and some interns won’t, but you have to allow for time to adjust. By definition, an internship is an opportunity for someone to learn the ropes and gain a foundation for his or her career, so keep in mind that at this point, the intern probably has limited experience. In addition to having a structure and taking the time to teach, being patient with the intern will pay off big in the long run. There have been very few interns in my time as a supervisor that “just got it” on the first day and were able to take on significant tasks immediately. Interns are not full-time staff members and should be given a real chance to learn and build their skills.
Hold them (and yourself) to a high standard. I know I *literally* just said that interns are not employees, but regardless of their status, it’s important to hold your interns to a high standard. Whether or not they are paid, and whether they work two hours a week or 30 hours a week, an intern is still a representative of your organization and should always be treated as such. At Michigan, we ask that our student interns adhere to a dress code and follow all departmental rules so as not to commit any compliance violations. Our interns are also required to maintain a professional presence on social media, and they sign a confidentiality agreement upon their hire. Treating our interns as if they are employees helps to build a strong sense of responsibility and shows how truly valuable they are to our operation.
Give clear and timely feedback. Giving feedback -- especially constructive criticism -- is probably the most difficult responsibility of any supervisor, but it is one of the most important duties in terms of your intern’s personal and professional growth. Chances are, your intern wants to learn anything and everything there is to know about your field, but they won’t execute every task perfectly and they will make mistakes. Giving feedback on how they can improve will make them a better worker, and it’s important to give this feedback in the moment. Waiting to give feedback -- positive or negative -- until a mid-year or end-of-internship evaluation is not fair to them. By providing this feedback in a timely manner, the intern will have the opportunity to correct mistakes, which is an experience that we all need.
The thought of managing an army of interns can be overwhelming, but providing a great work experience for people looking to break into the sports field is crucial to the success of this business. In addition to having a great experience as an intern, overseeing a group of interns has been one of the most fun and rewarding experiences of my professional career.