Through Remote Internships, Students Get Valuable Career Experience While Observing Pandemic Protocols

Ming McDonald '22

Normally each year, many Hollins students spend their January Short Term living and working in New York City, Washington, D.C., or other locations around the country as part of the university’s Signature Internship Program. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors may apply for an array of internships offered by alumnae in various fields. In addition to gaining valuable career experience, students receive academic credit and a $300 stipend, and housing is often provided.

But in 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic presented a significant and unprecedented challenge to the program: How could students safely and successfully complete an internship at a time when social distancing, travel restrictions, and other protocols limiting personal contact are essential in mitigating the spread of the virus?

The Hollins University Center for Career Development and Life Design, bolstered by the enthusiastic support of alumnae and nearly 30 organizations, developed a viable and dynamic alternative.

“We realized early on that our students would have to engage in remote internships this year, so we provided best practices and other information to employers to help them build a framework. We knew this whole idea would be as new to our employers as it was for us,” said Center for Career Development and Life Design Coordinator Amber Becke. “We were able to convert the majority of our existing internship employers, and even had quite a few organizations host multiple students during January. We were also pleased to reactivate some employers that we hadn’t partnered with in a few years.”

Forty-two students were placed in remote signature internships this January, working in areas such as technology, legislation, publishing, research, and marketing and communications. The Center for Career Development and Life Design readied them for what to expect. “We provide orientation sessions each year, but this year we put particular focus on remote work practices and preparation for the remote world,” Becke explained. “Prior to Short Term we regularly checked in with each of them to make sure they were comfortable with interning remotely and to assure them that we were here to support them throughout the month.”

Biology majors Mylah Johnson ’21 and Hana Olof ’22 were both seeking to build their medical  research experience, and while their remote internships kept them out of the labs at their respective employers, they were still able to participate in important work.

“I did so much and it was nice to be in a constantly changing environment, because that’s the way medical research goes,” said Johnson. She interned with Michelle Watt ’93 at San Antonio-based Vascular Perfusion Solutions, which is working on a device to help transplanted organs last longer outside of the body. “I helped present to the entire team of engineers, researchers, and CEOs a newly published scientific article that offered suggestions for their own research. I was also able to prepare some histology data for them. They sent me pictures of cells and I took measurements of those pictures with my laptop. Some of the data I gathered will support their research paper, which will be published eventually, and I will get co-authorship on it. I am so excited for that. Being able to step into the field I want to go into after graduation was really wonderful for me.”

Olof interned with Atlanta Botanical Garden, which emphasizes plant conservation education and research. “I mainly worked with seed banking and micropropagation (the multiplication and/or regeneration of plant material for transfer to the field),” she said. “It’s different from the field I’m used to, and I wanted to challenge myself and get to know more about why seed banking is needed. I wanted to learn how to design and conduct research.”

Olof performed research “on the shelf life of temperate versus tropical orchid seeds. It was fun to see how to organize data and do a statistical analysis in an actual scenario. It strengthened my interest in research.” Her work potentially will contribute to improvements in seed storage at Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Another compelling facet of Olof’s internship is that she completed it a half a world away in her home country of Ethiopia. “My supervisor was kind enough to take the time difference into consideration. We would always meet online at 10 a.m. (in the Eastern time zone), which was 6 p.m. back home.” At the outset, her other concern was whether she could count on having a reliable internet connection throughout the month, “but it was more stable than I expected. On the days that it didn’t work for me, I would just go to an internet café or a hotel nearby and do my Zoom calls there.”

While Johnson and Olof knew going into their internships that they want to pursue medical research after graduating from Hollins, Molly Ward ’22, who is double-majoring in history and art history, saw her Short Term experience as a crucial step in discovering where she wants to go in her career. Ward interned with the White House Historical Association’s marketing and communications department.

“I applied for this internship not knowing anything about the field, and just wanting to see if it would potentially be something I would like to do after graduation, and I think it is,” she said. “I had a great experience with great opportunities.”

Ward extensively researched the career of President Lyndon Johnson. She also performed a website review to find historical and grammatical errors and identify sections where the text could be improved. “This was awesome because I had no previous experience working on the back-end of websites and I became very fluent in using a CMS (content management system).”

Despite not being able to be physically present at American Rivers in Washington, D.C., biology major Camryn Anderson ‘21 still felt like she was very much a part of their team. “They welcomed me from day one as if I had worked for them for years. I was doing equity research on dam removal and restoring areas for impoverished or minority groups, and I was interviewing staff to learn about their experiences out in the field. Every single employee saw the interviews as a chance just to talk with me, to find out what I was doing, how they could help me (to achieve my goals), and who they could connect me with. I was at home but I was still getting this really incredible opportunity.”

English and political science major Claire Ross ’23 echoed the emphasis on collaboration in the office of Virginia State Senator Jennifer Boysko. “The size of the team was perfect for me. It was Sen. Boysko herself, my supervisor, another legislative aide, and two other interns. I was remote, but I still got to work hands-on with legislation. I got to write press conference statements, media releases, and statements for committees to help pass bills.”

For Ming McDonald ’22, a communication studies major, her remote work with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia this January has ably complemented her previous internships in helping her stand out while seeking future opportunities. “I recently had a call about a possible internship this summer, and I talked about the PR experience I’ve had through the Signature Internship Program. The people I spoke with were blown away with the amount of experience that I have from being a student at Hollins and the number of internships you can get here.”

She added, “I feel very confident that when I get my first job out of college and begin my career, it won’t be nearly as scary as it could have been because of the experience Hollins has offered. I’d just like to say ‘thank you.’”

Center for Career Development and Life Design Director Christine Harriger believes a mix of face-to-face and remote internships holds tremendous promise for the future. “With some things such as laboratory work, you really need to be in person, but other activities can be done in a hybrid fashion. You can save on expenses and still deliver valuable career preparation.”

In addition, Harriger is grateful for the collaborations that helped make the remote internship approach a success. “We could not offer these kinds of opportunities without our fabulous hosts and our super-engaged alumnae. And we’re really proud of how well students responded to this format, they represented us really well. This is what makes Hollins, Hollins.”

Photo: Ming McDonald ’22 completed a remote internship with Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia during this year’s January Short Term.