By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor
It’s summer, and college students are now in full internship season—time to hone their skills, build their resumes and networks, and get their foot in the door. The right internship can put students onto a trajectory for success and increase their chances of landing the full-time position of their choice. However, for college students, an internship is not just what many seem to think it is: an episode of work experience that lasts for a limited period of time and allows students to gain relevant skills and experience in a particular field, while developing professional networks. Rather, an internship should be viewed by college students as an opportunity for experiential learning.
Indeed, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), “An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.”
So, what is experiential learning? In its basic form, it’s any learning that encourages students to apply their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations. However, an important component of the experiential learning process is reflection, which is key to ongoing meaningful discovery. Therefore, reflective skill building is essential to this process. Other important components of experiential learning are appropriate feedback (received from internship supervisors and peers) and the application of the conceptual understanding deriving from a learning experience to new and purposeful ones. Feedback supports the process of reflection and helps students to plan productively for the next learning experience. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “Experiential learning engages students in critical thinking, problem solving and decision making in contexts that are personally relevant to them. This approach to learning also involves making opportunities for debriefing and consolidation of ideas and skills through feedback, reflection, and the application of the ideas and skills to new situations.”
Not surprisingly, then, three of the seven criteria established by NACE to define an experience as legitimate internship address the major components of experiential learning. The three criteria are: 1) The experience must be an extension of the classroom: a learning experience that provides for applying the knowledge gained in the classroom; 2) The skills or knowledge learned must be transferable to other employment settings; 3) There is routine feedback by the experienced supervisor.
Internships based on solid principles of experiential learning build strong critical thinking and reflective skills while promoting meaningful professional interactions, thus widening the circle of opportunity for college students long after the summer ends.
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