Ideally, Internships aren’t just about getting resume-filler. They’re about practical experience, networking, and portfolio-building. One aspect of internships that most of us take for granted is the vital role they play in acclimating young people to office culture.
Don’t laugh. I was fortunate to have worked in my father’s insurance office since I was 13, but most young people don’t have that sort of exposure to the white-collar working world and its various intricacies.
Office culture is so ubiquitous and richly-textured that the sitcom “The Office” has spawned numerous adaptations for the varying office cultures around the world, beginning first in the UK but then moving to the US, Germany, Canada, Chile, Israel, and Sweden.
Virtually every textbook in Communications and Public Relations stresses the importance of cultural competence in effective communication. So many of our paradigms for encoding and decoding messages are culture-specific. Here’s what I mean:
Tips for Students on Maximizing Their Internships
1. Get Something out of the Experience: Unfortunately there are still a lot of organizations that don’t monetarily compensate their interns. The practice is unethical in my opinion (and the opinion of the Public Relations Society of America). The current dismal economic climate isn’t helping matters much, but for students unable to get hourly pay or a stipend (to cover the cost of the credits for the class) for their efforts there are still ways to get value from the experience by ensuring that one of three things comes out of their work:
- A Name: It’s easier to make the case to take an unpaid internship if the organization is one that has a solid reputation that will look good as legitimate work experience on a resume.
- Solid Experience: Another intangible value if a name and money aren’t available for an internship is hands-on experience. Particularly for nonprofits and small companies, the possibility exists for an intern to be given a great deal of responsibility that exceeds the typical student experience. Being able to oversee projects and produce valuable portfolio content also has a great deal of merit.
- Cultural Competence: For the rare student that already knows what field or type of PR that they want to practice, gaining exposure to the networks of professionals and world they operate in is also valuable. Absent a name, cash, or responsibility in return for one’s work – being a fly on the wall in high-level meetings or consuming industry-specific literature on the job can also be valuable.
2. Keep a Diary: Many people find journaling to be valuable while studying abroad and that also applies to “studying abroad” in the office environment. Frequently when we’re in the moment at a job, it can be extraordinarily difficult to process and remember everything we experience. Writing them down helps not only the exercise of processing what we learn, but helping us internalize it so that we can actually apply it to our own careers. Try the following:
- Jot down terms you don’t understand to look up later.
- Keep records of the names of people you meet and the organizations they work for (this may come in handy . Maintain a running list of all of the unspoken “rules” for office behavior that you encounter (email alone is rife with behavioral norms).
3. Stay Open to Unfamiliar Experiences: Just as when traveling abroad, working in an office is a richer experience when you keep an open mind and volunteer for (or better yet, seek out) opportunities to do things or go places we wouldn’t have otherwise.
Looking back now after 15 years in PR, I realize that learning what I DON’T like has been just as valuable as learning what I DO like. The earlier you can develop self-awareness, the more opportunity you have to change your career trajectory toward a career that is fulfilling.
It may not seem like it now when you’re eating Ramen and worrying about affording gas for your car, but money isn’t everything. Contrary to what many textbooks, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and services like Salary.com say – you’re likely not going to get rich doing PR (the “starting salaries” they list are laughably inaccurate) … and that’s okay. What matters more is that you like the work and find it life-affirming.
4. Observe Others Reactions to You: Despite egalitarian ethos espoused by the the US, not everyone is equal in the workplace. Different standards (and in some cases, double-standards) still exist for for race, gender and culture. Understanding this is critical to navigating office politics. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you that a strong work ethic and quality output aren’t all you need to be successful in the white-collar world.
Given how much of PR is interpersonal relationships (with the media, with clients, with co-workers, with customers), every aspiring professional needs to be aware of how they may be received by the people they interact with daily. Fortunately you have plenty of opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them early in your career – those opportunities diminish as you get older.
Women especially have to be aware of relationship dynamics in the office, as they are more frequently held to a different standard than men. Take the adage “Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult” from Charlotte Whitton. Regrettably I’ve found this to be true in the so-called enlightened workplace of the “modern” era.
The curious thing I’ve observed is that women need to worry less about sexism from men than they do from other women. Throughout my career, the majority of my supervisors have been female and I’ve watched as a female colleague many years my senior in experience and ability has her view challenged where I am not even though I’m making the same contention.
As far as race and ethnicity go, the sad reality is that most organizations put the “White” in “White-Collar.” There isn’t nearly as much diversity in most offices as there should be. The upside is that this creates a great deal of opportunity for minority PR students: savvy firms and companies are looking to hire them. Naturally, PR pros know the intrinsic value of a diverse range of backgrounds and viewpoints in generating creative ideas as well as in relating to the increasingly-diverse US population.
One of the greatest gifts [curses] white people have is the ability to forget or take for granted the numerous advantages they’ve had in life. I’ve certainly been guilty of this many more times than once in my life.
The same is true of the tech-savvy. We take for granted all of the things we learned and the many teachers and lessons we had along the way. We perform highly-sophisticated tasks as rote, and because they are rote to us – we often forget that they’re most definitely NOT rote to others. That’s why I grind my teeth whenever my co-worker asks me something about basic HTML code. I forget all of the lessons I’ve learned since I first typed a string of it.
This is what led to Gene Marks of Forbes writing a piece (“If I was a Poor Black Kid”) offering a well-intentioned but misguided prescription for success to the inner-city black youth readers of Forbes (doubtless there are many of them):
If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options. With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have. (“If I Was a Poor Black Kid,” 2011)
Writers far better than I have already responded (and I recommend you read their pieces over mine: Kashmir Hill, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Cord Jefferson, Baratunde Thurston) but I couldn’t let this go, because of the problems inherent in how Marks closes his essay:
Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.
One can literally parse through each sentence of Marks column and come up with a laundry list of obstacles to the tasks he so blithely outlines (insinuating they’re relatively easy to follow). For the sake of time, I’ll just address the first paragraph in detail.
“I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”
No you wouldn’t. That would require that you had the luxury of time to devote to things as non-essential to survival as “grades.” It assumes you have some place warm, safe and dry to go back to every night after school (it also mistakenly assumes the school you go to is also warm, safe and dry). It assumes that you’re not moving every couple of months as your parents (or whomever is raising you) are kicked out of rental dwelling after rental dwelling.
Taking a step further back, it assumes you actually want to be successful at life (which requires experience with examples of success in life that plant the seeds of aspiration in us). It also assumes you understand that there is an important series of steps that must be completed in order to achieve that success. It also assumes that you don’t make any poor choices in between each of those steps (like commit a crime – which is basically a life sentence for a youth of color in a way it isn’t for white kids).
Taking a step forward, “good grades” don’t necessarily mean good education. Thanks to the standardized test-driven curricula we have, it often means that you develop unimportant skills (like memorization and regurgitation – an utter absurdity in the era of Wikipedia access on our smartphones) learning relatively ineffectual information (like what a bunch of old, white academics near retirement think should be ‘common knowledge’).
I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently.
No you wouldn’t. That assumes you understand the importance of reading. It assumes you can overcome the derision of peers for seeking such an absurd goal. It assumes you have the time and resources to accomplish this end (and that humiliation doesn’t preclude you reaching out to someone to teach you how to read). It assumes your parents know how to read and would think or have time to pass along the value of reading to you (and reinforce it at home).
What amazes me about my fellow honkeys is that they think children of color are somehow supposed to inherently have far more discipline, self-control, and patience than their own children. By that I mean, while they can’t get their own kids to clean up their toys or keep from throwing tantrums in line at the grocery store; they expect the children of the socioeconomic underclasses to be miniature adults with fully-formed pre-frontal cortexes capable of long-term decision-making and reasoning and able to always delay short-term gain for the benefit of long-term gain.
I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city.
Cracker, please. Brock Lesner wouldn’t last five minutes at that school. You would care.
Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities. Getting good grades is the key to having more options.
Which assumes that’s common knowledge. It also means that these students are fluent in the language and culture of academia. Oh yes, academia has a language and culture – and it’s distinctly white. Here are just some of the conventions of white academic culture that are often missed:
- Attendance is important and counts beyond the points the teacher gives. It can also buy the credibility necessary to ask for an extension on an assignment, or overlook a minor mistake on a test question.
- Constant communication with the teacher is important; it shows you’re paying attention, and can earn you an excused absence from class if your car breaks down.
- Participation in class discussion is important – it shows you’re paying attention and that you read the assigned text. It’s often something you’re also graded on either explicitly or implicitly.
- There are conventions for every type of work you have to do in a class. Papers have them. Tests have them. Presentations have them. Knowing where to access resources to better understand these conventions is an important skill not easily developed. Take tests as one example: it’s not built into our genes to understand that it’s important to venture a guess just in case you get credit, or to skip the hard questions and come back to them later, or to check the wording of other questions in the test for answers to others.
- Appearance is important; understanding how prone everyone (and I mean everyone – even teachers) are to stereotyping and prejudice based on nonverbal communication is a skill some rich white people (*cough*Trump*cough) figure out – to say nothing of how hard that is for poor black kids to learn.
This also mistakenly assumes inner-city kids are aware of options for their future beyond being a musician or pro ball player. Even white kids have trouble envisioning other options because of the limited exposure they have to career fields; some have postulated this is why education is such a popular major in college - because it’s one of the only career fields students understand well as a result of continuous exposure to teachers as role models.
With good grades you can choose different, better paths. If you do poorly in school, particularly in a lousy school, you’re severely limiting the limited opportunities you have.
Yeah but doing well in a lousy school doesn’t increase your opportunities much; you still carry that stigma to every class with you. Not only that, but you’re completely unprepared for the workload you will encounter when you try to advance to higher education. Just look at higher education completion rates; only 55 percent of those who go for higher ed degrees successfully finish them.
Beyond the oversimplification of the problem, inherent in this conclusion is a very ugly component of upper-crust white American sentiment toward all others: …so, uh, what about the kids who aren’t smart enough to go for it?
The answer is that the majority of White America is basically okay with those kids ending up in prison or dead (fates they would never tolerate for white children if they were happening as routinely as they do for children of other races).
Right now, the Southern Illinois University Carbondale is in the middle of a contract negotiation dispute which has resulted in a strike by the tenured faculty. As one would expect in a situation such as this, the faculty has urged its supporters to be vocal on the union’s behalf and some students took to the SIU Carbondale Facebook Fan Page to urge a resolution to the contract dispute.
Unfortunately, the SIU Carbondale administrators of the page began deleting those messages. One report noted that they began by deleting only the messages of support for the faculty, but later began deleting all messages related to the dispute – and even went so far as to ban some users. Read more…