Coronavirus hasn’t stopped federal internships

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Not all students will be bored this summer, unable to find a job. Several hundred are already at work in virtual federal internships. They’ll also have access to career enhancement workshops such as resume writing and interviewing. The director of federal initiatives at The Washington Center, Shannan Spisak, joined Federal Drive Tom Temin to describe how this all works.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Spisak, good to have you on.

Shannan Spisak:  Thank you, Tom, thank you for having me.

Tom Temin: Tell us about this program. The Washington Center is kind of a bridge between student would-be interns and federal agencies?

Shannan Spisak:  Correct, yes. So The Washington Center provides opportunities for students to transition into internship programs. They have or they offer two different options. One type of internship program is focused on academic credit. And the other type of internship program students receive a stipend for their work in federal agencies. And that’s the program that I’m here to speak with you about today. The agency programs that provide stipends for students’ internships.

Tom Temin: Got it. And we should point out that it’s too late for this summer, but it’s probably almost time to apply for fall openings.

Shannan Spisak:  Correct. That is correct. And we have information on TWC’s website about the various different agency programs that are available. And anyone who’s interested can fill out an interest form through the website and TWC will reach out when applications become available.

Tom Temin: All right, so tell us about these internships. They come with a stipend. These are college students?

Shannan Spisak:  Correct. Yes. So the basic requirement is that you need to be enrolled at the undergraduate level. Typically these programs are offered in summers between freshmen-sophomore, sophomore- junior years so students can actually apply for more than one summer if that’s of interest to them. They must be US citizens because they work in federal agencies. They’re required to clear a background check but the basic application requirements are US citizen and enrolled in an undergraduate program. Some opportunities are available for graduate students as well. They would also need to be in the summer between their first and second years.

Tom Temin: And this is not a tiny program – you’ve got hundreds, here. Give us some of the numbers.

Shannan Spisak:  We do. We do have hundreds. So we have over 300 students placed in federal agencies this summer. We have a few agencies who offer signature summer programs, meaning they have a larger group of students that they foster incoming each summer. Those are the Department of Transportation, and the [Department of Navy]* Research. And we also have the Federal Aviation Administration that admits a large number of students every summer. They focus their efforts on summer development programs through their internships. Aside from those agencies, we also have a handful of agencies who request smaller numbers of students and they also receive stipends for their participation in their internship opportunities.

Tom Temin: And you also offer along with these, the internship itself, several career-building types of activities like resume writing, and so on. Tell us about some of those.

Shannan Spisak:  Correct. Yes, so this summer we actually enhanced some of our professional development opportunities because of the virtual nature of these internships. One of the most valuable components of an internship is of course, being in person in an office and, you know, networking and collaborating with peers, understanding what the office environment is like in a particular agency. So in this instance, with our with our transition to virtual, we’ve tried to create some more opportunities for students to engage like virtual networking sessions. We have some sessions and panel discussions about preparing for informational interviews. In the job environment, we have a session on personal branding, and negotiating salary and benefits.

Tom Temin: Got it. We’re speaking with Shannon Spisak, she’s director of federal initiatives at The Washington Center. And how has the virtualizing and the coronavirus, and all of that affected the program?

Shannan Spisak:  Well, as you might imagine, it’s been a lot of transition for the agencies and for our teams. I think the students have taken it in stride. You know, before the summer came, a lot of them had shifted to online learning at their universities. And so this is sort of another type of that virtual experience for them. The agencies, I think, initially, were a little bit hesitant about what a virtual internship might look like. But, you know, we worked in collaboration with them to walk through some of the opportunities that students could have in a virtual environment, what those professional development opportunities could be. They were very excited to contribute to professional development even as it related to their agencies. So for example, the Department of Transportation is providing a series of information sessions to students about the different types of opportunities and different offices just within the Department of Transportation, how students can meet and network with different individuals from those different areas even in a virtual setting. So I think, you know, initially there was a little bit of hesitation, but once we sort of decided how we could provide a unique opportunity to students, the agencies were very much on board in contributing to what that new dynamic looks like.

Tom Temin: And because it’s virtual, can they only do two types of egghead types of activities, program analysis, budgeting and so forth? Or can they learn operational aspects? Because certainly, DOT and FAA and TSA and all of these different agencies do have the operational side.

Shannan Spisak:  They do and that’s a great question. And that’s been some of what the agencies are looking at how they can give that opportunity to a student through a virtual experience. And so they’ve been looking at having the students you know, join sort of the video conferences and video and virtual access to their colleagues in terms of sort of job shadowing and what those individual colleagues would be doing sort of on a day to day basis. So they’re not necessarily isolated and only working on, you know, documents and spreadsheets, but being involved in any kind of virtual activity that their mentor and each of them are assigned a mentor, which is their supervisor at the agency may work with them directly through their assignments. And so that mentor also will be tasked with incorporating them into the operational side of the activities at their their office in their age.

Tom Temin: I guess they could borrow mannequin and maybe pat it down looking for a gun while watching online how to do it?

Shannan Spisak:  Yes, if they’re working with TSA, perhaps yes.

Tom Temin: All right. And what’s your advice for agencies that want to offer internships since you do have another round coming up in the fall and then again in the spring and this is all year round? What should they do to prepare themselves so that they, the agency, get the benefit out of it, and it’s also a good experience for the interns?

Shannan Spisak:  Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think, you know, the, the first answer to that is be flexible, I think, think a little bit creatively about how an opportunity for a student that was perhaps designed as an in-person opportunity, which was the case for these summer internships, when these, you know, individual assignments were being developed by managers and mentors, there was no consideration that the summer would be virtual. And so the initial assignments that managers were requesting were based on an in-person, participant. And so, you know, the idea was that the agency sort of had a reconsider of these types of tasks or experiences that we want for our intern, how can we make them successful in a virtual setting? And one of the things that we realized with multiple agencies doing this at once is that they had each other to lean on sort of for sources of best practices and would come to us say, Well, what are other agencies doing in these circumstances and we were able to share sort of how the agencies were looking at virtual opportunities and what kinds of sort of supplemental activities could be incorporated to make it really a robust experience. So I would say, if agencies are interested in supporting interns in the in the fall and the spring still in a virtual way to think about how they can engage with others across their agency in a virtual setting, to provide the students with information and experiences that they would probably get in an in-person setting, but that could be transitioned to a virtual environment.

Tom Temin: And do internships ever lead to full-time federal jobs after graduation?

Shannan Spisak:  Definitely they do. And we also have, as I mentioned, students can participate more than one summer I think, in many cases, we see students who have an internship, multiple summers or in some cases have and internship in the summer and that transition to a continuing internship in the fall or spring, eventually lead to an employment opportunity with a particular agency. The federal agencies do, of course have their structure pathway to applying to opportunities within those agencies, which sometimes can be lengthy and cumbersome. But with these internship opportunities, the hope is that students can receive a more direct path to employment opportunities as they are available at the agency.

Tom Temin: Shannon Spisak is director of federal initiatives at The Washington Center. Thanks so much for joining me.

Shannan Spisak: Thank you, Tom. It was great to speak about our programs this summer.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview along with a link to more information at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Hear the Federal Drive on your schedule. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

*Editor’s note: The full program name is the Department of Navy’s HBCU/MI Internship Program at the US Naval Research Laboratory, which is sponsored by the Department of Navy.