A moment captured at the annual DoSomething conference.

A moment captured at the annual DoSomething conference.

Last week, we attended the DoSomething annual conference, a brash and fun event designed to show the organization's achievements over the past year in engaging young people in social change campaigns. Slides like the one pictured above advocated for the power of engaging young people, who are already actively challenging the status quo, to increase their civic engagement and participation in social change. It made me reflect on my own civic engagement in highschool and college, and on my impending work with Inspiring Capital's newest crop of summer interns.

Often, when you ask professionals about their summer internships in college, nothing notable comes up-- they might remember shadowing a friend of their parents, or participating in a structured internship program at a large corporation. My own summer internships were varied and non-linear, much like my professional path: I was a sailing counselor at my childhood camp in Vermont, I spent a summer in the Marketing Department of a large corporate law firm in Charlotte, and worked in retail and marketing at clothing boutiques in Massachusetts and North Carolina.

Reflecting on these experiences now, none were directly relevant either in the scope of work or industry that I am in now. Admittedly, that wasn't why I chose them. Instead, they were mostly arranged out of convenience and network connections, with people who already knew me and my work, and they paid well and allowed me to live where I wanted to for the summers. So, I researched event sites for legal gatherings, organized camp unit parties, inventoried jeans and learned a whole bevy of skills that were interesting, but that seemed irrelevant to my eventual work trajectory. Except, they were relevant. Working retail taught me nuanced customer service skills. Legal marketing showed me the inertia of navigating large corporations. Counseling young people challenged and grew my understanding of morality, and of teaching.

Colleges these days are certainly getting savvier about finding students internships. My alma mater, Davidson, has a very sophisticated matching system to connect students with alumni who might be willing to hire them. You can filter and sort your summer internship by a variety of function areas and industries. However, many of the young people I talk to don't have a great understanding of the kinds of jobs that are out there, and how interning one of the fabulous places available to them might be a good fit for either their skills or their interests (or ideally, both!) Often, students end up in an internship at an organization that aligns directly with their interests, but neither their daily work nor their direct exposure to employees reveals a deeper understanding of eventual career fit for them. On the employer side, taking on a summer intern and fully utilizing them as they would a regular employee often means a level of management capacity and risk that companies are unwilling to invest in.

So, what's the best choice for a summer internship? Is it better, like I did, to work for a variety of organizations that may not fit the career bill but that provide direct work experience, some level of trust and responsibility, and applied skills in the sector? Or, is it better to get in the "right" industry, even if the internship itself isn't productive? There has to be a way to meet in the middle. I would never have been able to precisely communicate my career goals each summer of college, and I relished the opportunity to try my hand via real, experiential learning, at each of the jobs I took. I left each with a clearer understanding of my own professional strengths, new allies and advocates from each employer, and a clarified vision of my next steps.

A student named Jahnavi, one of the applicants to our Social Enterprise Summer Training Institute, said to me last week, "This is exactly what I think I want to do...I just had no idea this kind of job even existed!" She was referring to the growing field of social enterprise, the combination of a profit-driven business model integrated with a social purpose. This summer, along with a cohort of like-minded undergrads, she'll get the chance to try her hand at working directly for a social enterprise, or a non-profit, or a corporate CSR department, through a program that combines 8 weeks of consulting work experience managed by an MBA with 150 hours of sector training and exposure. I'm grateful to work in a position that allows me to help students like Jahnavi expand their understanding of the opportunities available to them. Her generation will continue to face increasingly complex and global social and environmental challenges, and a summer of experiential learning will hopefully provide at least a meager head start in solving those issues. I hope more organizations follow suit in creating summer internship programs that are not only resume-builders for their participants, but real opportunities for growth, failure, and learning. In our broken career system, truly utilizing summer interns as the next generation of professional leaders is a good first step in fixing the future of work. 

A few spots remain in our Social Enterprise Summer Training Institute (SESTI), and applications are accepted on a rolling basis through mid-April.  We get lots of requests from undergrads and are happy to promote other opportunities, so tell us in the comments below-- how does your company effectively utilize its summer interns?