|Susan's Tip of the Month: Why Student "Interns" Are Indeed Volunteers
It is a recurring debate in our field whether or not students who receive academic credit for performing an unpaid curriculum-based internship should be considered "volunteers." I contend that they most certainly are, and that it matters a lot for such students to be under the administration of the volunteer resources office. Here's why:
Academic credit cannot be negotiated at the store for a loaf of bread. Just as other volunteers, student interns do not go on your payroll; they may benefit greatly from their service, but not financially. Further, many student interns contribute far more hours to the agency than the minimum required by the school. Is this extra time not "volunteering" in its purest sense?
Sometimes the argument is that student interns require pre-professional roles not often assigned to other volunteers. Maybe it is time to reassess all volunteer assignments, not just those intended for student interns. Creating positions that truly contribute to the organization's services and allow for learning, growth and development is clearly in the best interest of everyone - and will attract a higher caliber of adult volunteer, too.
It takes skill to design good internship assignments, to which too many students left with little to do for a semester can attest. The basic considerations mirror good volunteer work design and it is the volunteer resources manager who can assist in crafting tasks or projects that can be:
- accomplished within various, limited schedules;
- handled by someone inexperienced (even if knowledgeable);
- supervised by a staff member without being a burden; and
- passed on to successors with minimal interruption.
Once student-focused work has been identified, the volunteer resources office can maintain the list of all internship position vacancies throughout the organization, recruit applicants, and do initial screening and matching. By centralizing internship applications, many staff members will save time by not having to contact various colleges individually and you make sure that all students are told of every available opening. Individual staff supervisors are only aware of what is available in their one particular unit and cannot offer the prospective intern the full range of assignment options. The staff supervisor makes the final decision on acceptance of the intern, just as with any volunteer candidate referred to a unit. But, if a student is not right for one unit, only the volunteer resources manager has the overview necessary to see if there is another possible placement that would be more appropriate.
Every newcomer to the agency deserves an orientation and the volunteer resources office is already set up to provide this. If interns by-pass the volunteer resources office and go directly to a line supervisor, they will not get an overview of the entire organization. Training for the specific task to be done will then be given to the intern by the supervisor (the member of the profession involved), as is appropriate.
There is also a public relations argument for centralizing the coordination of internships in the volunteer resources office. This sort of process allows faculty from all schools to make one contact a semester, referring all the student internship candidates at one time. Similarly, requests for end-of-placement evaluations can be also channeled (one call for the school) to the volunteer resources manager, who can then monitor whether all forms have been submitted as required. Copies of such evaluations can then be kept in the volunteer office with the student intern's other records, so that future references can easily be provided.
If volunteer resources is not in charge of student interns administratively, where will records be kept on student interns? Is anyone keeping such records at all now? Who monitors how much staff time is being spent on interns, how many students have been placed, or what the performance level of interns has been? If for no other reason, it may be necessary to document the work of interns to meet insurance requirements, since, as with all volunteers, there are accident and liability considerations for interns.
Transitioning from an Internship
Student interns separated from agency volunteers rarely receive formal recognition of their accomplishments during their internships. Completing required school evaluations is important feedback, but not necessarily a thank you for work contributed. Only the volunteer resources office can represent the entire agency in expressing the appreciation most students have earned.
It is common for a percentage of students to want to remain active with the agency after the official end of their internships. Are they then expected to "transfer" to the volunteer resources office - or will they remain undocumented (and, essentially, unauthorized) in an unclassified state? In one workshop I taught, a participant admitted that she knew of at least three students who had kept right on with their work for over a year after their school ties had ended, but no one reported it until she asked why the young people were still around. Some of their co-workers in the unit were not even aware that the official internships had ended. Parenthetically, is this the best way to help students with their education? Maybe these students were ready to move on to more challenging assignments in another part of the organization, but no one was responsible for making this offer to them.
As so often happens, there is a ripple effect to doing the right thing for student interns. Not only do students get a more meaningful work experience with greater benefits to the agency, but all volunteer involvement is strengthened. Internships may appeal to a wider audience than simply students, staff raises their expectations of unpaid help, and all volunteer assignments are fully integrated into the organization.