The Importance of Internships
When Stephen Sponsel ’82, P’12, P’09 graduated from St. Olaf with a B.A. degree in art and significant coursework in economics, he thought his career options were limited to advertising and marketing in the for-profit business sector. He had no idea he’d spend his career as an administrator at Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s leading health care organizations “with a mission you just can’t fail to be engaged with,” Sponsel says. He is a director in Mayo’s Media Support Services, which manages all aspects of media at the clinic, from video conferencing to print and online media to medical photography and surgical video.
“Everybody knows about doctors and nurses and other medical professionals at Mayo,” he says. “But in an organization this large and this specialized, the number of administrative opportunities related to health care is enormous.”
It was precisely those hidden administrative positions that Sponsel wanted to illuminate for St. Olaf students when he signed on three years ago to sponsor an intern in the Media Support Services Project, part of St. Olaf’s Health Scholars at the Mayo Clinic program. The program supports eight interns each summer in various roles at the clinic.
“Our administrative internship allows students to see the variety of job roles that have great clinical impact,” Sponsel says. “They see multiple dimensions of the subject matter they’re interested in.”
Sponsel created the Media Support Services internship around a long-term development project: building the next generation of Mayo Clinic TV, an interactive TV system that provides patient education, movies, and network programs for patients. Three St. Olaf interns have worked on measuring, reporting, and analyzing patients’ and nurses’ satisfaction with the new system, including this summer’s intern, nursing student Yinglin Sun ’21.
“Yinglin is getting a unique perspective on the nursing role from the administrative side,” Sponsel says. “The TV system is a non-nursing technology that has a substantial impact on the nurses’ day because they’re pulled into helping patients use it. Yinglin has been a part of helping us figure out how to improve the system’s usability so that nurses can go about their more critical duties.”
Sponsel’s mentorship of St. Olaf interns is just one example of Oles helping current students explore career possibilities through experience in the workplace. This summer, students are interning for companies and organizations across many sectors, from the arts to business to technology.
The investment of alumni, parents, and friends of the college in the Piper Center for Vocation and Career has been instrumental in creating myriad internship opportunities for students, says Kirsten Cahoon ’98, senior associate director of employer and alumni relations at the Piper Center for Vocation and Career.
“We love to work with alumni, parents, and other supporters who have a genuine interest in mentoring and helping to develop our students,” Cahoon says, noting that such support creates a wider variety of internship opportunities for students to pursue. Each career coach in the Piper Center is an industry specialist who maintains relationships with alumni, parents, and employers to leverage connections for the benefit of students. The center also manages a database of internships recently held by Oles to further assist students in finding the right fit.
For students who may have financial concerns about applying for internships and other pre-professional activities, the center offers up to $2,000 in funding for unpaid or underpaid internships. St. Olaf’s Johnson Family Opportunity Fund helps high-need students cover the cost not only of living expenses connected with internships but also of other expenses, from purchasing workplace attire to flying to an interview to paying application fees for graduate and professional school.
Support from alumni, parents, and friends of the college has also helped St. Olaf distinguish itself in the internship realm with its summer and Interim cohort programs. These programs — including Rockswold Health Scholars, Health Scholars at the Mayo Clinic, Social Entrepreneurship Scholars, Svoboda Legal Scholars, Mayo Innovation Scholars, St. Olaf Entrepreneurial Scholars, and Norway Innovation Scholars — support small groups of four to ten students interning in specific fields. Students receive a stipend, benefit from shared experiences, and sometimes live together.
“Students who have completed internships graduate not only with a world-class liberal arts education but also with demonstrable skills and experiences that help propel them forward.” — Kirsten Cahoon ’98
Another distinguishing feature of St. Olaf’s internship program is its array of experiential opportunities for students interested in careers in the health professions. Along with the two Health Scholars programs, St. Olaf supports a clinical and research internship at the University of Minnesota’s Blood and Marrow Transplant Center and a biomedical ethics research internship at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. Other students intern with Consultative Health and Medicine in the Twin Cities to gain a broader understanding of a collaborative model of health care for senior citizens. In addition, students routinely intern at the Center for Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation in Northfield, Wieber Physical Therapy in Faribault, and TRIA Orthopedic in the Twin Cities. The Piper Center also offers the Pathways to Healthcare internship program in collaboration with the Northfield Retirement Center and Three Links, which provides assisted living, nursing home care, senior living.
Many of the cohort internship programs offer experiences that wouldn’t necessarily be available to students without Ole connections. For example, Svoboda Legal Scholars have performed legal and research assistance in clinics at law schools, in areas such as child advocacy and immigration law, alongside attorneys and law professors across the Upper Midwest.
“It’s one of only two programs in the nation that have these sorts of opportunities open to undergraduates,” Cahoon says.
The cohort internship model as a holistic experience illustrates a key principle of the Piper Center’s approach to career coaching.
“There’s greater acknowledgment today that the whole person matters, and with that comes an increased blending of work and life outside of work,” Cahoon says. “Students today want to be fulfilled. They want to do something that is highly valued and to be able to see how that work fits into a greater whole.” One of the Piper Center’s goals, according to Cahoon, is to be dynamic and responsive to the needs of students in defining what type of work best matches their interests and skills and will lead to a meaningful life after college.
An experience like an internship is vital in that it serves many functions, including helping students explore and test out their interests, building their skills and applying their academic learning, making professional contacts who can be mentors and guides, and even securing a full-time job after graduation. It’s not uncommon for students to have an internship after both their second and third years at St. Olaf.
“The most important thing is skill building,” Cahoon says. “Students who’ve completed internships graduate not only with a world-class liberal arts education, but also with demonstrable skills and experiences that help propel them forward.”
The first goal of St. Olaf’s current strategic plan is to enhance student participation in, and experience of, high-impact educational practices, which include experiential learning opportunities like internships, mentored research, and practicums. To meet that goal, St. Olaf is committed to maintaining the percentage of graduating seniors who engage in such practices at 85 percent or higher. According to the results of the First Destination Survey (administered to all graduating seniors), student participation in high-impact educational practices has been rising, from 79.5 percent of the Class of 2016 to 89 percent of the Class of 2019.
“The most interesting thing we uncovered from this year’s First Destination Survey is that students’ strongest predictor of high confidence about the future was having completed an internship,” Cahoon says. “Students of all demographics — first generation, low-income, all majors — said an internship was the co-curricular activity that had the most impact in giving them confidence as they move out into the workplace.”
St. Olaf students interned at a variety of companies and organizations this summer. We’ve highlighted a few to give you an idea of the range of internship opportunities Oles pursue.