Facing Canceled Internships and Few Jobs, College Students Ask: What Now?

Facing Canceled Internships and Few Jobs, College Students Ask: What Now? (Photo: andresr/Getty Images)

For college students hoping to land a competitive summer internship before graduation, the application process starts early. That was certainly true for Queenie Guan, a junior at Babson College who submitted her application to a major e-commerce company in September, nearly nine months before the June start date.

“A summer internship opportunity, especially for your junior year, is pretty important to find a full-time job afterward,” Guan said.

After interviewing in October, the business administration major accepted an internship position in early November. Guan’s summer plans, not to mention the prospect of a return offer for a full-time position after graduation, were set. 

That was before universities closed campuses and sent their students home due to the growing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and before corporations of all sizes began to implement layoffs and hiring freezes due to massive drops in consumer spending. Storefronts closed, online classes began, and college students started to wonder: How would the coronavirus response affect their internships and career paths? 

In mid-April, Guan got her answer: Her internship program was canceled and would not be made virtual, though the company’s employees had transitioned to remote work. While some corporations are promising their internship classes the chance to work at the company later, Guan’s program offered only priority consideration in future application cycles. 

“They say they are a tech company, and they are able to get on remote fast, but they’re not able to move the internship online,” Guan said. “I understand that the program was designed to be very hands-on and in-person … but a lot of different other companies that are similar in size are not canceling. It’s disappointing, but what can I do about it?” 

The sense of loss among prospective summer interns and spring interns who saw their programs cut short is palpable, as many are fearful of how the lost experience might affect their long-term career trajectory as well as their immediate income. 

The crowdsourced database ismyinternshipcancelled.com, built by Arizona State University students Ananay Arora, Kaan Aksoy and Devyash Lodha, has counted at least 163 canceled summer programs across the country, basing its data on submissions from prospective interns and official statements from organizations. Each internship listing shows the source of the information, which is typically provided by interns who have communicated directly with a company representative. 

Arora said the project, which also provides updates on remote programs, hiring freezes and internship opportunities, was inspired by isitcanceledyet.com, a site that offered a basic list of conferences, concerts and other events that were scrapped in the early days of the U.S. crisis. 

“There was this data repository on [the software development platform] GitHub that had a list of internships, but it wasn’t easy for people to actually contribute to that unless you’re a programmer or have used Git before,” Arora said. “It was super complex, so we made it easy for people to crowdsource and submit proof of their internship statuses.”

But the site’s numbers do not include the experiences of spring interns like Raymond Yee, who graduated from the University of California Riverside in June 2019, and recently worked as a marketing intern at a food manufacturing company. In early March, just as Americans became aware of the extent of the pandemic, Yee and his fellow interns received a late evening email informing them that the next day, a Friday, would be their last. 

The company did not specifically cite the coronavirus as the reason behind ending the internship program, but Yee said it became clear that COVID-19 was hurting the company’s bottom line. He is now living off savings and working on his skillset as he waits out the crisis.

“A lot of people who are in a position like mine right now, they tend to blame their company for making these decisions to cut their budgets on certain departments, but I realize that the leaders are actually doing this because of their own company’s well-being rather than being greedy,” Yee said. “It’s not that the employers are being unfair. It’s more like that we’re in an unfair crisis right now.” 

The uncertain landscape is forcing many students and recent graduates to rethink their career paths. Skyler Davis, a junior finance major at Southern Adventist University in Tennessee, is reconsidering her plan to look for jobs in the sports and entertainment industries, which have taken a huge hit due to the coronavirus crisis. 

“With sports and entertainment, when things go wrong, those are usually the safe havens that people can go to, and to have a type of natural disaster that impacts the amount of people we can have in a location does cause a lot of concern,” Davis said. “I’m trying to understand at this point if it’s worth following the passions that I have and making a career out of that or going with what I know will be there.” 

Davis found out in early April that her position as a trip leader with Moondance Adventures, a travel company focused on young people, had been canceled. She was expecting to use the job experience for her university’s requirement that all students complete an internship before graduation. 

As she considers graduating in December or next May, Davis remains on the hunt for a summer internship that could satisfy the requirement, which she said the university has not changed in the wake of the pandemic. 

“I feel like there’s that much more pressure on the process because it’s that one opportunity, and if it doesn’t go well, it could be the only one or the last one,” Davis said. “Every job interview, every resume I send out is that much more important because it could be the only.”

Carlos Mark Vera, the executive director and co-founder of advocacy group Pay Our Interns, is working to ensure that there are still remote opportunities left for students who have been thrown back into the market. His group has partnered with the remote internship platform Symba for the #SaveInternships campaign, offering stipends to organizations that cannot afford to pay interns and providing resources to transition in-person programs to virtual. 

“An internship is not like going to summer camp or something that you choose to do,” Vera said. “For some people, that’s their way of getting an income. If you think about it further, for folks that can never really afford to intern, what do you do? You work at a restaurant, or you work retail. Those two options are out the door, so you really have people screwed over.”

That’s why the two companies are beating the drum for remote internships, which can be more equitable for students who previously would have struggled to pay for housing in New York City, Los Angeles or other major cities, Vera said. 

As students continue to navigate a challenging market, Arora, Aksoy and Lodha imagine that their site could serve as a historical representation of the record number of internships canceled this summer. Aksoy, a graduating senior, hopes that recruiters can appreciate that students lost these positions due to unforeseen circumstances and not penalize them for the holes in their work experience. 

“Perhaps it could become acceptable to put what company you were expecting to do an internship on your resume so that in the next year, the recruiter can see that, ‘Wow, this guy passed a very difficult interview at this company,’” Aksoy said. “That would be a very valuable thing for companies in order to identify talented students, and not punish students for something out of their control.” 

Vera encourages young people who have lost internships to share their stories about the issues they are facing as a result of the pandemic. 

“There is a fear of speaking out because they think they might get blackballed, they’re just getting started in their careers,” Vera said. “But the problem is if people don’t know what you’re going through, people are not going to be activated to change things.”

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