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5 tips for crushing it as a work-from-home intern

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC fall interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Kendall Camp is a junior at Morehouse College studying communications. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

Many internships were canceled when coronavirus hit. But for a lot of students who were lucky enough to get one, there was one, big unprecedented challenge: They would be working from home. That means, no thrill of walking the halls of a big corporation. No bumping into people in the hallway or grabbing coffee in the cafeteria.

So the big question becomes: How can you learn, network and grow when you're working from home?

In early March, I had just signed on for a summer internship with NBCUniversal in Los Angeles. During my birthday dinner, my friends and I were discussing internships and what we planned to do in our new roles and living in a new city. Within 48 hours, all during my spring break, I get an email from my college that classes will be going fully remote for the rest of the semester.

I then had to pack and move 2,500 miles from Atlanta, where I go to school, to my hometown of Tracy, Calif. All within a week! I could only pack two suitcases to go home – never thinking that I was going home for what is going on nine months at this point.

The feelings of anxiety started to settle in – so many questions. Would I even have an internship? Or was that canceled, too? I had worked tirelessly in school, extracurricular activities, personal projects, etc. to finally receive an internship offer. For many students receiving an internship is one of the highlights throughout college. Internship culture is talked about a lot in college. Like, if you don't get an internship, you somehow feel incomplete – or as if you hadn't quite executed college properly.

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In May, I got the news that I would, in fact, still have an internship – but it would be remote. Upon hearing the news, all kinds of questions popped into my head: How can I network? How will I make an impact? How can I achieve this from home? This was my first corporate experience, so I didn't really know how to do this in the first place, now I have to do it remotely and I won't be able to meet anyone in person.

So many people have lost jobs due to Covid-19 — those of us who were able to get an internship are grateful but we have grappled with how to get the most out of our experience and make an impact.

Here are five challenges of being a work-from-home intern — and some solutiona for how to make the most of it:

The Challenge: Networking in a virtual setting

What you can do: Find virtual communities

One of the things in college you hear is to "network." Stop people in the hall. Ask someone to grab coffee and chat about business or attend industry events.

How can you do that from your couch?

There are still ways to engage and learn from other people. For example, you can join a virtual community of other college students — and communities that are specific to your field.

"Joining Slack or Discord communities can be very helpful," said Mike Deng, a student at ArtCenter College of Design, who is interning at evidence-management software firm JusticeText.

Mike Deng, a student at ArtCenter College of Design and a product design intern at JusticeText
Source: Mike Deng

"The Intern Club" is a community on the communications platform Slack, where you can connect and be in discussions with other interns around the country and share information and ask questions about your internship experiences.

Deng is a member of a few groups on another communications platform, Discord, including "Design Buddies" and "Design Careers Network." Design Buddies hosts industry events and you can connect with mentors. In the Design Careers Network, Deng said they discuss recruiting and internships that students have found.

The benefit of these virtual communities is that everybody is going through the same thing. Whether you are from Washington or New York, interns worldwide seek communities to chat and learn from each other. People ask things like: "What should I do when my team doesn't want to turn their camera on?" or "How can I build time-management skills while living with family and going to school?"

Learning how to network properly in these channels is vital. Often people have a misconception that you should only network with people in a higher career status than you. That's not true — you should network across all levels. Remember: That friend who is interning at company A is then going to go on to intern at company B and work at company C. So, right there — you have a connection at three potential employers!

So, if you find a job you're interested in, look for someone in the channel who works or has worked there in the past. Ask them for the name of a hiring manager, for a resume critique or help with interview preparation.

Think of interviewing like a test: When you do your homework — in this case, interviewing students to get information about what the employer is looking for — you have a much better chance of acing it. So, use these channels to help find your next job and pay it forward when someone asks for assistance with job hunting from you.

And guess what? I'm networking right now! To write this story, I wanted to interview people outside of my school and CNBC, where I'm interning, so I used Slack's "Intern Club." Merely putting a message in the channel, I had multiple students I have never met or spoken to who wanted to be interviewed for this story. I then set up Zoom interviews to learn about people's schools, internships, and career paths. I would have never been able to do that in a remote setting with people I had no prior connection with if I didn't join groups outside of my immediate network. And, now all of the people in this story are connections in my network!

The Challenge: Making a good impression

What you can do: Offer to help on a project and set up one-on-one chats so people can get to know you

Another challenge that interns have faced is making contacts at their internship — and making a good impression.

In the past, you could meet people in person where they see your attire, posture, and enthusiasm to be at the internship. That is now different.

Another issue interns have run into is that they're not receiving enough work because they are not in sight or the opposite — they receive too much work as team members do not know how many projects they're currently working on.

Shuhab Elhag, a student at Howard University and an intern at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggests taking the initiative to offer yourself up for assignments.

"Say to your supervisor, 'Hey, I realized you're working on that project, let me take care of that for you,'" Elhag said.

Shuhab Elhag, a student at Howard University and an intern at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Source: Shuhab Elhag

That's one of the best pieces of advice: Make your boss's job easier. Because who doesn't want someone on their team who makes their job easier? That builds trust and it could very well make them think of you on high-priority projects when they come up. Remember that what you do is a piece that could affect thousands or even millions of people. Do not take any project lightly, do it to the best of your ability, and always look to provide value.

Another great tip: Set up one-on-one meetings so your team members can get to know you. Yes, you can do this in a remote environment! Whatever communications tools your company uses — Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom – take the initiative to set up meetings with people you'd like to connect with and whose jobs you'd like to know more about. A 30-minute chat can go a long way — not just for you to learn about them and their job but also for them to get to know you better. This will help you get a read on different jobs within an organization but it could also lead to you getting an assignment during your internship — or even a job down the road. And, you can ask all the questions you have as opposed to Zoom meetings with 10 people where you may not feel comfortable asking a question.

"Don't be shy about contacting somebody," said Anika Mishra, a student at the University of Washington Information School, who is interning at Madrona Venture Labs. "Sending personal messages can go a long way."

Reaching out can help make a good impression, and personal messages can have people more inclined to speak with you. You can use LinkedIn to look at people's backgrounds and craft messages that are personal to them. That way, you have a better chance of getting a response and them giving you some time out of their day.

Here's an example:

Hello, xxxxx. My name is Kendall Camp, and I'm a strategic content and events intern at CNBC. I am interested in learning more about how to become a better multimedia journalist. Do you have 15 minutes to offer some advice? Some of the questions I wanted to ask are:

• How did you get started in this business?
• What does your job entail in a typical day?

• What are the qualities someone in this business should have?
• What practical things should I do right now to build the right skill set?

Thank you,

In these informational chats, always say thank you and be mindful of their time, so try to keep it around 15-30 minutes. This type of informational interview may not seem like a big deal, but it can be very informative to help you get on the right track and can even lead to a job down the road!

The Challenge: Feeling lonely

What you can do: Virtual activities with other interns

One of the biggest challenges I have grappled with is feeling lonely. Working from home can be daunting and challenging, but being a young person can provide a whole other set of challenges. Older people may have a significant other or kids to brighten up their day, but that is typically not the case for most students.

As a work-from-home intern, you often don't know any other interns unless you reach out or if you happen to be assigned to work on a project together. Under-communication and lack of community can lead to a sense of loneliness as well.

"With relying on Zoom and email, things can get lost in translation a lot easier than being in person," said Madison Macay, a student at San Francisco State University and an intern at CBS News.

Madison Macay, a student at San Francisco State University, and an intern at CBS News.
Source: Madison Macay

And, with classes and working from home, interns can easily spend 12-15 hours a day on a screen, leading to Zoom fatigue and feeling lonely.

A way to combat this challenge of feeling lonely is setting up virtual activities with other interns. You can find other interns via LinkedIn, Slack workspaces, or message boards in your company's database. You can create a group chat and assign a time to chat as a group or play games.

You can start by saying, "Hello, xxxxx. I saw you are an intern at xxxxxx or have an interest in consulting. I would love to chat with you about how you got into consulting and what projects you are currently working on. You can also try using applications such as Icebreaker, which lets you preload 5 randomized questions, and you can get to know multiple people with 6-minute chats that rotate to make things faster but still be able to connect with people one-on-one.

And, it doesn't always have to be about work! Sometimes it's just about connecting with people and normalizing the struggles of what we're all going through. And, realizing that you're not alone.

After these virtual hangouts, I feel a lot better about my day because I have made some personal connections with people.

The Challenge: Working around family

What you can do: Let family know what you are working on and make them aware of your meeting schedule

When students go away to college, they are often looking to get away from their families to learn more about themselves and run their own schedules. With remote internships, many students are back home with their family members. Often you may be doing a project, and then your mother says "Can you take the trash out?" or "Can you run an errand?" While these are all good intentions, it can distract when engaging in deep work or a meeting.

Often young people do not have their own workspaces and having siblings, which can be a challenge as well.

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The best thing to do is to notify your family of what you are working on. Tell them your schedule and meetings times so they know ahead of time. While this will not solve all problems, your family will have a greater sense of what you are doing and hopefully give you some space to do your school and internship work. I also recommend getting a good set of headphones and being mindful of distractions such as TV, music, chat with friends, etc. and set aside these activities later.

Another tip to help focus on work is to put your phone in another room or to turn it up a notch and give it to a family member and say you can not have your phone back till you are done with work. While this may sound extreme, we have all been in a meeting or working on something and take a glance at our phone and start using Instagram, Twitter, and texting back to friends. This can hurt productivity and discipline. Set an intention to focus on the work in front of you.

The Challenge: Navigating career choices

What you can do: Find mentors and career advisers

Navigating career choices is hard enough – nevermind doing it remotely!

When we were on campus, we had companies come to us or we were in a space where we could collaborate with students, professors, and advisers.

Cassandra Thompson, a career specialist at the College of Communications at Fullerton, said one of the fears she has spoken to students about is whether there is going to be a job for them at graduation or an internship for them next semester.

Her answer to that question is yes — it just might not be the initial company you thought of working for.

"Apply and reach out to recruiters and hiring managers," Thompson said. "Don't think you can apply, and that's it. Tailor the resume and cover letter to their job description."

One way to do this is to go on LinkedIn and search for "intern + the company you are interested in." You'll find previous interns and you can message them to ask who their supervisor or recruiter is and ask if you can get their contact information. You can also ask them for any tips they have of what that employer might be looking for and how to impress them in the interview. Not only will you get some great insight, but now you've made a connection at your desired company.

You might even find people more receptive to chat in this work-from-home environment, because they're not going out, not traveling — they might have more time and would even appreciate making a connection from home. Use that leverage by reaching out to people you feel you can assist you on your career path.

Another one of the most significant benefits of virtual internships is they allow you to not be tied to your location. Students now look at their dream companies and do not have to think about rent costs or the cost of moving in general. Being able to live in Oakland and do an internship that is based in New York has never been possible before. This allows students to get a great internship experience but save on costs as well.

When applying, Thompson said it's important to proofread your resume — and it does not have to be fancy. Don't put too much time in deciding what color or cool font to have your resume in, but content that shows your impact at previous experiences and how that can apply to you providing value for the company.

Thompson's biggest tip on a resume is, "Content trumps creativity."

Being a work-from-home intern can be challenging but there are ways to make an impact and have a great experience. So, don't complain about how hard it is. Show your tenacity.

No one expects you to navigate this perfectly. It's OK to reach out and ask for help. You are not alone. Ask peers, college career advisors or people at your company. Stay in touch with them.

Networking isn't one-and-done! It's about building relationships. So don't just reach out once and then never again.

Remember, how you handle challenges is something hiring managers and future employers are interested in. Because you will inevitably face challenges on the job, so they want to know how this person will handle it? I would say that WFH, as a college student during a pandemic, is one of the biggest challenges you could face. Meet the challenge head-on, don't just survive but thrive – and you will have a great talking point to impress the hiring manager during your next job interview.

Who knows, it might just land you your next job!

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CHECK OUT: 4 tips for upping your chances of finding a job and getting ahead in your career via Grow with Acorns+CNBC.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.