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Making the Best of a Bad Internship Experience

From Lemons to Lemonade

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By Richard Bottner

It was December 23rd, 2005 when I received word from Byron Industries (the real name of the company has been disguised) that I would be invited to take part in their fall internship program. With more than 2,000 employees and several hundred million dollars in revenue, Byron is one of Boston’s largest companies. Studying human resources as an undergraduate had been challenging. There were few educational opportunities within my university. I felt that gaining an HR internship was key to building a successful career. Achieving not only an internship position, but one at such a prominent company, was extremely exciting.

Starting My Internship Experience

I entered the program in January of 2006. I met my supervisor who seemed fantastic. She had created a motivating list of tasks and assignments that I would complete during the internship. These included investigating human resources benefits and working to improve their unique in-house benefit referral system. There were other projects listed as well, including what was described as occasional menial tasks such as hanging fliers, stapling, alphabetizing, etc.

The Reality of My Internship

What was supposed to be the pinnacle of my college education turned out to be one of my least favorite experiences. I was required to drive into Boston at least three days per week. In doing so, I incurred the cost of gas, tolls, parking, and wear and tear on my car. My internship was entirely unpaid, including any possible reimbursement for my auto expenses. I was a junior, and therefore my course work was at its most difficult and plentiful stage – but I was spending a minimum of fifteen hours per week immersed in this undesirable experience.

As if these factors weren’t bad enough, the time I did spend at the internship site left much to be desired. My supervisor gave me orders, and the vast majority of them were to perform menial tasks. I was even traded off to other departments where they wouldn’t ask my name, but instead referred to me as “intern”. And I couldn’t quit even if I wanted to because I was receiving academic credit from my college. Leaving the program would have a resulted in a “withdrawal” on my transcript; something I wasn’t too thrilled about.

The Moral of the Story

What’s the moral of this story? Although my experience was pretty bad and I would never want to do it again, I also don’t regret having taken part in it. I learned several valuable lessons including the importance of having perseverance in the workplace. It was also a great opportunity to learn the specific details of why Byron was such an awful place to work. If I were to ever encounter a similar situation or culture down the road, I will be able to recognize it and take appropriate action.

Another point is for students to try and think of a way to make lemonade out of a lemon. In my case, I was able to turn my bad experience into a business where I can help improve internships. Other students may find it helpful to write reflective essays or start a network on their campus where they can discuss and share common internship issues. Internships are always beneficial for the student in some way. The amount of benefit is directly related to how well the host site and the student can mesh together in a state of high-impact work that is deeply educational. At the very least, students will be able to keep their internship on their resume. Byron Industries will likely remain on my resume forever – after all, I earned it.

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