Making Interns Feel Important

Posted on November 3, 2019

Jon Stehle

Shay Bauman, student at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington, reflects on interning with Performa. 

This summer, I lived in Utah, did a fellowship out of Oregon, while my boss lived in Virginia, my organization was headquartered in Maryland, and the CEO lived in Australia. My experience was unique. Finding a time for us all to meet with conflicting time-zones alone was a full-time job!

A few years ago, I was the public sector internship coordinator at Southern Utah University, setting up over 30 university students with internships in government and non-profit. I knew about how to be a great intern and engage interns as their supervisor from that position, but Performa taught me that I was wrong. Engaging interns can be difficult in any office, but engaging interns in a remote position is an art to say the least.

About My Position

I am an MPA student at the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. My program specializations are Public Finance and Budgeting and Policy Analysis and Program Evaluation (it’s a lot, I know). I grew up in rural Utah, about 30 minutes from Zion National Park and received a degree in Economics from Southern Utah University. While there, I served as a Legislative Research Intern for the State of Utah, a Research Assistant for former governor Michael O. Leavitt, and an internship coordinator at the Michael O. Leavitt Center for Politics and Public Service at my university. I have been surrounded by internships – both as an intern and as a supervisor – for quite some time. 

This summer, I did a fellowship through the Oregon Summer Fellows program at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University with The Performa Group, a private organization that provides public budgeting software to states and localities. Fellowships are similar to internships, except that they are more about professional development than gaining work experience. The best and most realistic way I have found to describe it is that fellows don’t get people coffee. This program selects its fellows based off resumes and applications and then matches them with public-sector organizations across the state of Oregon and beyond. 

Most of my colleagues were placed in government or non-profit offices such as the Port of Portland, Portland City Auditor’s Office, Oregon Department of Administrative Services, etc. When I was contacted by Performa, I didn’t know what to think about working in the private-sector, let alone when that was exactly what I applied NOT to do. Thankfully it was an amazing experience, and even though it was unique and complicated, my colleagues were exceptionally engaging, even from across the globe.

Here are a few tips and tricks I have found and been taught about how to be a good intern/fellow and how to better engage them when they work for you.

Being an Intern

Our society places a lot of value on internships. They are one of the few ways to gain considerable industry experience and build a solid resume while going to school. If you are interning in an area of interest, it is a perfect way to get a foot in the door. It goes beyond that, though. Internships are a way to figure out what you want to do. Internships should be a time of exploration and excitement and although they are important, they shouldn’t be scary. 

My greatest advice to an intern is to ask a lot of questions. Nobody expects interns to have everything figured out. It is better to ask a few questions in order to do work right than to attempt it on your own and waste valuable time. I know there is a lot of pressure to “prove yourself,” and that if you ask too many questions it feels like you’ll look inadequate. There are two rules in regard to questions in order for that to not be true:

  1. Don’t ask the same question twice – learn the first time. 
  2. Exhaust at least a few resources to show that you have tried to solve the problem on your own.

Another privilege interns have is the ability to ask “why” and suggest improvements. Especially in the public sector. I looked at a lot of public technology systems during my fellowship with Performa and found many outdated practices. When I investigated why that is, I found that many offices are reluctant to innovation because they conflate it with difficulty. Offices are looking for bright minds to come in and erase that conflation. Don’t be afraid to show what you know. I know this can seem hard as an intern because you don’t want to seem arrogant. My preferred route is to gently ask either “why are things done this way” or “why aren’t things done this way.” It still allows your superiors to be you superiors and it’s dialogue- not demand. 

My last tip for interns is to exude confidence even if it is forged. Imposter syndrome is real at the intern stage of life but I promise you are not an imposter. You filled out the application and you were selected. This is the most important thing Performa taught me. Jon, my boss, constantly reminded me when I was having self-doubt “You are in graduate school, you were chosen for this position. You’re already awesome. Just do what you know how to do.” He said that to me more times than I can count, and it meant a lot. 

You got the position. You deserve to be there and if you don’t believe it, keep saying it until you do.  

Engaging Interns

Engaging interns is an art and it can take some trial and error because each will have unique needs in order to succeed. The best way to have a meaningful connection with an intern is to take the time to get to know them. Performa had a different fellow last year, and throughout the course of her fellowship she never had a face-to-face interaction with them until the fellowship was nearly over. While she was still successful, – one of her suggestions to improve the program was to meet in person at the start of the fellowship. Jon came out to meet me during my orientation and those few hours helped me feel prepared and energized for the next 8 weeks. Even in internships that aren’t remote, individualized training and orientation is crucial. 

Another benefit of getting to actually know your interns is that this connection will enable them to feel comfortable asking questions. I would even recommend explicitly stating that you, as a supervisor, expect them to have a lot of questions and encouraging them to ask for help. This is crucial not only for the development of the intern, but for the efficiency of their work. Interns are there to explore a career and they will not know everything. That is okay! If they feel comfortable asking questions and help when they need it, there will be less mistakes made and time lost. 

One thing that is hard for some organizations is trusting interns with work that actually matters. This doesn’t mean giving them tasks that, if done wrong, would destroy the organization. It means that interns should do more than busy work. Even if that means just allowing them to sit in on important meetings, helping with steps of important tasks, or being given the opportunity to present a project of their own on top of the other work they do. Interns will enjoy their experience more and get more out of it if they can say they did more than file paperwork. Allowing them to dip their toes in big ideas also allows fresh eyes on organizational practices. They might surprise you with new ideas. 

All of these tips can be boiled down to this: make interns feel important and valued. Think back on the time in your life when you were doing internships. It is a scary transitional part of life and it could set the path for their entire career. Help them feel energized to join the workforce and help develop valuable skills. We have the opportunity to enhance the future workforce by how we treat our interns.

I would like to thank Jon Stehle and Performa for truly engaging me and helping me gain invaluable skills over the course of the summer. If all organizations treated their interns how they treated me, the workforce would be a better place to explore!

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