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What do you do when your internship is canceled? College students need to get creative and adapt this summer

Key Points
  • Kelsey Johnson is a CNBC summer intern from the University of Southern California
  • Nicole Dienst is a CNBC summer intern from Colgate University
  • They talked to students, career advisors and hiring managers to find out how students can adapt — and thrive — during these extraordinary times.

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC summer interns from universities across the country about coming of age, launching new careers and job hunting during a global pandemic. They're finding their voices during a time of great social change and hope for a better future. What money issues are they facing? How are they navigating their student loans? How are they getting work experience, networking and applying for jobs when so many opportunities have been canceled or postponed? How important is diversity and a company's values to Gen Z job seekers? This series will be published every Tuesday and Thursday. 

The coronavirus pandemic caused a lot of employers to rethink or pause their hiring plans. That left many college students scrambling to figure out what to do as summer internships were canceled and job offers rescinded or postponed.

More than one-third of college students had their internship canceled, according to a survey of students in April by career platform Handshake. Another 24 percent said their internships were still going to happen but would now be virtual, which poses its own challenges for networking and impressing the boss.

Instead of just sitting home and feeling defeated about a canceled internship, career advisors and hiring managers suggest that students figure out how to use their skills in a new way, get creative and adapt. That could mean taking an online course to build your skill set, launching your own project or looking for freelance opportunities — both in your target field and in other fields.

"When students are continuing to learn even during trying times and leveraging innovative programs to do so, it shows they are resilient and resourceful, which are valuable traits that employers look for," said Tracy Keogh, chief human resources officer at tech giant HP.

Take an online course

Allison Heil, a rising senior at the University of Southern California, was devastated to learn that her dream internship with the Chicago Cubs had been canceled as a result of Covid-19.

"I panicked a little at first, being a rising senior, because I thought this was the most important summer internship to have on a resume," Heil said. 

Allison Heil, a rising senior at USC, is currently taking part in the Must Love Sports summer session.
Photo: Maya McGrath

But, Heil found out through LinkedIn about a ten-week immersive program called "Must Love Sports," a pop-up virtual internship program for students trying to break into the sports industry. The summer session, which was created in response to the impact of Covid-19 on internships, helps hundreds of students around the country who have been displaced from summer internships in the sports business. The program offers students weekly panels, speakers, networking, direct mentoring and small group sessions based on their area of interest. Students who need to receive credit in order to graduate are given a project which consists of weekly assignments sponsored by employers such as NASCAR and Bleacher Report. 

"The goal of this curriculum is to expose students to everything that touches sports so they understand how big this industry is," said the program's founder and CEO Raleigh Anne Gray. They also focus on "ensuring growth and excitement, getting to know people and building relationships," she added. 

Heil said she really appreciates the opportunity to gain experience this summer — and learn from industry leaders.

"They give us advice not only for our future careers, but for the now, telling us what we can do during this tumultuous time in order to grow both as an individual leader, and a team member," Heil said. 

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Many other companies are offering online summer intern development programs amid the coronavirus pandemic, including ViacomCBS, HP and AT&T, where students can learn how businesses operate and about key areas of the business — valuable experience for students looking to build their resume and figure out what areas they want to work in.

There are a variety of online platforms through which students can take courses and build their professional skill sets, including LinkedIn Learning, Coursera and Mediabistro. Other programs, such as Harvard Business School's CORe program (which stands for Credential of Readiness) and Dartmouth's Tuck Business Bridge Program, have attracted attention from students looking for a more intensive and business-focused curriculum. 

Start your own project

If you missed the sign-up date for an online class or you just have a project that's been in the back of your mind ... now is the time to try to explore it! What better way to impress a future employer than to stop waiting for the right experience to find you and create your own?

When Jordan Rubin, a recent graduate from UC Irvine, found out his internship in the talent partnerships department at marketing agency 9thWonder was canceled, he decided to use the summer to create and develop his app PocketShark, a one-finger mobile game that he hopes can be used by all. The project had been a long-standing idea of his, and the pandemic provided the perfect opportunity for him to start bringing it into fruition.

"I've actually found this pandemic to be more helpful in the startup space, especially for funding," he said. "I've been able to connect with more venture capital firms and angel investors, especially being able to pitch the concept via Zoom and Google Hangouts."

Jordan Rubin, a recent graduate of UC Irvine, is using the summer to create and develop his app PocketShark, a one-finger mobile game which is currently in its funding phase.
Photo: Noah Ross

Ella Gupta is still in high school at Cary Academy in Cary, NC, but she's already working on building career experience that will surely impress future employers. She started writing a book on personal finance and is in the process of creating free educational resources for students on personal finance as her impromptu summer experience. 

"I would definitely say taking something you are interested in and building on it and looking for opportunities related to that … even if it's not an internship, even if it's just researching or building your network now," Gupta said.

Ella Gupta, a high school student at Cary Day Academy, has founded her own startup, the Initiative for Financial Literacy Exploration.
Photo: Bobbie Gupta


Deonte Clayton, a rising senior at California State University Northridge who is studying marketing, is volunteering at his local church while developing his digital marketing skills to remain productive over the summer. 

"I've been helping my church create a virtual presence and we've been doing a lot: websites, streams, radio, and social media," said Clayton. "I've also helped with a grab-and-go service every Sunday where we buy food from local businesses to feed our church and community members."

Clayton appreciates the opportunity to exercise his skills and see how certain marketing tools and strategies can be applied to different industries, especially in a community that has been a part of his life since childhood.

Volunteer opportunities are a great option to continue building your skill set, get a line on the resume, and help out a community in need. The American Red Cross and AARP  are actively searching for volunteers to assist with coronavirus relief efforts and fill vacancies prompted by the pandemic. Dedicating time to volunteering exemplifies to employers a desire to make a tangible impact and remain productive amid the crisis. 

Focus on your goal: getting a job

It's easy to get distracted or derailed during an extraordinary situation like the coronavirus pandemic when there is so much uncertainty and fear. But, career advisors and hiring managers say it's important to remember that this situation isn't forever, you just need to adapt and focus on your goal: getting hired.

"Don't wait for the macroeconomics to shift back into your favor," said Don Kjelleran, director of the '68 career exploration center at Williams College. Just think: "What's the short-term strategy that's going to keep you moving forward to get to the long-term goal?"

Williams College, among many other colleges and universities, are supplying their students with free resources and additional summer advising throughout this period to help them navigate their job searches. Check your college career center to find out what resources are available.

What hiring managers look for in video interviews

Career advisors also suggest that students broaden their job-search criteria outside of their target industry and location.

Christine Cruzvergara, VP at career platform Handshake, noted that there are five industries they're seeing on Handshake that are still actively hiring: education, non-profit, health care, technology and government.

Even if you aren't immediately interested in health care or government, figure out where your skills might cross over and find an opportunity in an industry you might not have considered before. You might find that you actually like working in that industry or it may function as a stepping stone until something opens up in your industry.

The key is being able to adapt – and thrive, even in a challenging situation like this.

"Technology has improved, people are more flexible and adaptable, they're more nimble of how they can switch and pivot their company's processes, and the students they're looking for are the same — students that are adaptable, flexible," said Kristen McCormack, assistant director of the career exploration center at Williams College who advises students specifically interested in arts, communications and technology.

Students that can talk about how they pivoted to do everything remotely and built project-management, time-management and communications skills in the process — that's going to match what they're looking for, she said.

Gray also encourages students to use this time to listen and learn. That's how you build knowledge — and your network.

"People are always happy to share what they are working on and are certainly happy to support students and the growth of what will be the future of their industry," Gray said. "If you're educated, have a great network, and you've been actively listening then you'll be the first through the door."

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