I will start by prefacing that I am not an English major, Mass Communications major, a journalist or in other fields that would tie me to spirited writing. I am also pretty sure I got a B in an English Composition class so bear with me on this piece.
If you have ever gone shopping on Amazon, the chances are that you have seen products labeled as AmazonBasics. For those who do not know, AmazonBasics are products sold and branded by Amazon that give consumers access to the essential goods at an inexpensive, unbeatable price point. We are going to apply that same logic to the advice I am to deliver. While this advice may not be the flashiest and may not be the best, at it’s given price point of Free .99 it gives you all the essentials you need to hit the ground running. This is #FreeGame.
Summertime was my favorite season of the year growing up because school was let out for summer, which meant I could sleep in and play with friends all day. Throughout my matriculation of college, Summertime has remained my favorite time of year but for different reasons now. Summer gives me an opportunity to reunite with old friends but most importantly it is a perfect time to prepare myself for life after college through internships, conferences and other experiences. Plainly put, Summertime as a college student is the perfect time to “Secure the bag”.
Recently, I have had a few of my peers reach out to me for advice on how to succeed in their internships so I decided that I should share that same advice to a larger platform. I remember the summer after my freshman year at Fort Valley State University, I received a research internship that enabled me to work in New Mexico for ten weeks. Moving across the country was an exhilarating feeling but also one that came with a ton of adversity. I also did not think I needed to ask for advice because I did not know who to even ask but more importantly, I did not think I needed advice. I thought I could figure it out all on my own like everything else I had done up until that point. At HBCUs, there are many people receiving once-in-a-lifetime opportunities but find themselves struggling. Everyone should have accessibility to advice from people who come from similar environments and settings as them so I write this in hopes of helping those from HBCUs, Secure The Bag.
Before we get into the keys to success, it is important that I give my two prerequisites. Similar to the enrollment rules at your college, you cannot take this course without the mandated prerequisites. These two requirements are essential because, without them, every piece of advice I give can easily be invalidated. Pay attention, class is now in session.
You do not know everything.
I find this to be pretty self-explanatory. While there is no doubt that you are an intelligent individual it is important to remember that life is a continuous learning experience. I guarantee that you do not know everything and that your internship will teach you a lot. It is imperative that you leave the know-it-all mindset at the door and enter with a growth mindset. Internships and REUs can have a way of humbling even the smartest of students, accept that you will not know everything. It’s better in the long run, trust me.
Impostor Syndrome, You were chosen for a reason
In the digital age, easy accessibility to applications has increased competition for summer opportunities across every industry imaginable. As students at HBCUs, it is very plausible that you may be one of the few people of color at your internship if not the only person of color. Additionally, You may not have met all the qualifications listed on the application so in turn you do not feel fully qualified. All of these different conditions can lead to the feeling of Impostor Syndrome, which is the idea that you have only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications. I am here to tell you whether it be a Research Experience(REU) or an internship, you were chosen for a reason. I repeat you were chosen for a reason. The truth is rarely any applicants meet all the qualifications listed for a position, so you have to understand that you were chosen because your employer believes you are capable of adding value at your position. You must believe that you are capable of excelling during your internship or any advice I give from hereinafter will be useless. The biggest key to your internship success will be your mindset, “the more you think is possible, the more is actually possible.”
Now that we have gotten the prerequisites out of the way, I can give you the additional keys to success for your summer experience. I definitely dropped the ball on all five of these keys so it is imperative that you learn from my mistakes and remind the world exactly what products of HBCUs are capable of.
The Keys to Securing the Bag
Understand How You Will Be Evaluated
When you get to your REU or internship you likely will have a general idea of your project through the job description but in most you cases you will not know your exact task. Generally, once you meet your boss, one of the initial conversations will revolve around discussing your assignment for the summer. I implore you to first and foremost understand what the project is asking out of you and ask any relevant questions relating to the project. While that may seem obvious, It is also imperative during this time that you ask questions to understand how exactly you will be evaluated throughout your internship. Questions I like to ask include “How will I be evaluated during this internship?”, “At the end of the summer, what do you envision a successful internship looking like?”, “What do you expect from me?”, “In the past, what has successful internships looked like?”, etc. While there are many different variations and questions you can ask, the key is to be intentional so that you and your manager both have the same expectations throughout the duration of the summer. If you and your manager have different expectations, it will almost always end in disaster as you will each have different understandings of what the end goal is. Communication is key, be straightforward and intentional with asking how you will be evaluated, it is your right.
Ask Questions and for Help
There is a high probability that once you get your project you are going to have a plethora of questions. You may even be completely at a loss of where to begin. Take a deep breath, everything will be okay. Asking basic questions like “Where should I begin” are perfectly fine with your boss. You need to know where to start to build off and branch on your own. It may seem embarrassing to ask such questions but I can assure you it is all apart of the process. Likely in school, you are used to understanding concepts without much tutelage so it is easier said than done when it comes to asking for help. Additionally, you may gain a feeling of intimidation because you are in a new space that makes you feel as if you are the least intelligent person in the room and so this feeling may lead you to refrain from asking questions. Do not fall into this self-fulfilling trap, nobody expects you to know everything and in some cases much at all. Internships and research experiences in their purest forms are learning opportunities so you should be asking questions as often as possible to ensure you are soaking in as much knowledge as possible. This is why I suggest throughout the duration of your internship you ask every single question*. I asterisked “question” because if you can get your answer with a basic google search or minimal effort on your part then I advise answering your own question. It is better to ask questions after you have tried to solve it yourself so you can give context when you begin to ask your co-workers questions. This step is very important because it will show your co-workers that you are trying to navigate the landscape to the best of your abilities. However, do not spend all day trying to answer your own questions, time is of the essence. Ask for help. We will get more in-depth about wasting time later.
Summer Internships and REUs can last anywhere from four to thirteen weeks and while it may be obvious that four weeks is a short amount of time to prove yourself I promise you that even thirteen weeks is a very short period of time. Therefore, I cannot stress the importance of being disciplined and working hard during your internship. Some internships and research experiences will be under strict guidance and very structured. Some internships and research experiences will give you more freedom, and therefore, more responsibilities. This next piece of advice caters to those who fit into the latter category. When you are given a bunch of freedom it becomes very easy to waste whole days, which can very quickly turn into weeks. ]If you have set up expectations with your boss, it is very easy to get behind and in turn, overwhelmed by your assignment after wasting valuable time. This is why it is important that you stay disciplined and push through even on the days you do not feel like working. The reality is you are not going to be productive every day, it is an unrealistic ask and expectation. However, the key is to minimize the “off” days you take at work and find ways to get little tasks done on those “off” days. That way when you are back to being productive you do not get bogged down trying to take care of the little things you should have done earlier. Furthermore, if you get to the point where either you finish your project early or you find out that you dislike your project, neither is an excuse to stop working. Someone is always watching. If you finish your project early, take the initiative to ask for more work and expand your skill-set, it will help in the long run. If you find out that you dislike your project, good for you. The reality is internships and research opportunities are prime opportunities for you to figure out your likes and dislikes. That being said it is important that you have the discipline to work hard and plow through the work you agreed to finish during your internship. There are a lot of things in life we do not like to do but yet still have an obligation to complete. Your word is your bond, keep your end of the bargain. It is mutually beneficial and it will end quicker than you realize. As Blocboy JB sums it up on Rover, “Gotta maintain, stay focused.”
Networking is one of the most important things you can do during your internship. It is important to get to know your co-workers because in many cases at the end of your internship they will be asked their opinion on your performance. You want as many people that will vouch for you in rooms that you will not be present in as possible. So while some of your co-workers may have no relevance or expertise to your project, they will be able to attest to how you have interacted with them and in effect will speak to their perception of you. In simple terms, you want them to say they would like to work with you. Furthermore, they may be able to help you find individuals who can assist you in achieving your goals and interests. Be nice to all your co-workers and I advise you at the beginning of your internship to schedule time to get to know each of their backgrounds and interests. Relationship building will take you a long way, the key is to build your relationship up in small increments so that it grows stronger over time. Depending on your boss, their perception of you could be the difference between getting hired/return offer and fired/no return offer. ( This is also why it is important to work hard, someone is always watching) On the inverse side of things, you may have co-workers who can directly help on your projects. Your boss or another co-worker may introduce or inform you that these co-workers can help. You can follow the same procedure I outlined earlier, nurture these relationships as they can help you brainstorm ideas and find solutions. Another reason networking is important during your internship is that the people you meet can provide you with valuable perspectives, guidance, and wisdom that you would not be able to achieve on your own. These insights do not have to be related to your work and can be on topics ranging from life and career advice to events you should attend in your spare time. If you are interested in seeing different areas of the business or in a research setting different areas of research(especially for those who realize they do not like the area they are in), be sure to use your newly forming network to connect with those people in different areas. All in all, as the saying goes, your network is your net worth, and as an intern that cannot be any truer.
Internships and REUs are an excellent opportunity to learn more about a particular field or industry but this also a time to have fun outside of work and learn more about yourself. For those in a new city, you should definitely take time to be a tourist and learn more about the city. On an internship, I love to use my co-workers, Yelp and a city’s tourism website to find restaurants, museums and other attractions that interest me. If you are aiming for a full-time offer or apart of an REU program looking at grad schools, it is important that you evaluate your new city and determine if its a place you could see yourself moving to for an extended period of time. Enjoying your new environment is also a key to decompressing from work and can even give you something to look forward to if you are having a bad week. I beg you not to burn yourself out working in order to please your boss or manager, it is not worth in the long run. Go outside, appreciate your new city and learn about yourself in the process. For those interning in a city, they are already familiar with I encourage you to explore parts of the city or even the state you have not already explored and take your peers with you. You can always create new experiences at a previously explored destination when new faces are thrown into the equation. All in all, your internship is not solely about work, it’s about learning about yourself and fully soaking in the opportunity before you.
If you only remember one thing from anything I have said thus far it should be that your mindset will determine whether your internship is a success or not. Define your own definitions for success and adhere to them even if they do not necessarily align with your manager’s vision of you. No internship should ever be deemed as a “failure” because regardless of the outcome you should have valuable insights from your experience that will prepare you for the next phases of your life. Take in your opportunity of a lifetime, enjoy and maximize it to the fullest because you will never be able to get that time back. As our predecessors have done for us since the inception of HBCUs in the 19th century, we must continue to light a path for those that will follow in our footsteps. Secure the bag, you are HBCU made which means you are built for this. I am rooting for you, it’s bag season ladies and gentlemen.