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What College Students Should Know About Online Internships

As 2020 spiraled into uncertainty with the spread of the coronavirus, colleges and private businesses alike were forced to recalibrate, shifting classes and work online due to the global health emergency.

For some students, that meant the cancellation of internships as businesses looked to stave off precipitous losses in a perilous economy marked by soaring unemployment and social distancing efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

"Around March and April, students were really wondering whether their already accepted internships would even take place," says Tanja Hinterstoisser, director of career education and employer relations at Champlain College in Vermont. "And the reality was that there were employers that had retracted their internship offers, and students themselves had to actually pull back on certain commitments that they made because of the travel restrictions."

But amid the coronavirus chaos, online internships have emerged as options for eager college students.

How Online Internships Work

What to expect from an online internship varies by company needs, experts say. But ultimately students should expect to be assigned work to be completed by a certain deadline under the supervision of someone at the company.

While this all sounds fairly traditional, the online component means interns will likely have greater flexibility.

"I would say that the biggest difference between an online internship and a face-to-face one is that deadlines become a bit more flexible and the time you work on things can be almost whenever," Omar Lopez, a rising sophomore at Hamilton College in New York who has a virtual internship with WhiteCliff Wealth Management, wrote in an email.

Instead of logging a 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. workday, for example, Lopez says he can start his day early and end it by noon. The greater flexibility allows him to take on more responsibilities at his internship or work on his own projects.

[Read: How to Get an Internship in College.]

On the employer side, Sam Zietz, CEO of financial technology firm GRUBBRR, sees a strong upside to online internships. Flexibility matters, not just in the workday but in attracting talent -- especially outside of major tech hubs.

"It's hard to pick up and move to the other side of the country for a summer," Zietz says. "It allows us access to some of the best talent across the country as opposed to the best talent that's willing to come down to South Florida."

Zietz says he's hired 30 students for virtual internships this summer in roles such as writing code and marketing. Though online internships have opened a wider talent pool for Zietz, there are still some aspects lost without the face-to-face environment. In years past, interns have taken part in team-building exercises that the company is now trying to replicate online. Interns also miss out on the chance to connect with co-workers around the water cooler.

"What's kind of lost is some of the magic that happens," Zietz says.

Heather Wixson, associate director of career development at Hamilton College, says elements such as face-to-face communication are lost online. "Some students are just starting to develop the confidence in presenting themselves in a work environment, and virtually, they may not have to do that to the same degree," she wrote in an email.

But there are other positives that make up for this, experts say, including experience in an increasingly connected world of work. As professional settings likely evolve post-pandemic, interns will have remote work experience to draw on.

How to Find an Online Internship

As pandemic panic set in and colleges began to close, three students at Brown University in Rhode Island launched a site called Internfromhome.com with the mission of helping their peers find internships amid the COVID-19 chaos.

"We want to help create as many meaningful opportunities for students as we possibly can," says Chuck Isgar, a rising senior at Brown who co-founded the site along with Megan Kasselberg and David Lu, who both graduated in late May.

Kasselberg hopes the site can democratize access to internships. "We felt like there are a lot of opportunities that were available to us, going to Brown and going to school in the northeast between New York and Boston, that weren't available to everyone," she says. "Remote internships are available to everyone; it doesn't matter where you live."

The founders of Internfromhome.com say they've heard from hundreds of companies, all of which they vet for quality before posting a position. Internship postings range from positions in engineering to education and beyond.

[Read: Consider Internship Opportunities During a College Search.]

Some colleges are also stepping up to ensure that students have access to internships.

Hamilton, for example, has expanded funding to allow students to take on unpaid or low-paying internships. And Champlain has launched a virtual gap year program that offers both internships and college credit.

Hinterstoisser says Champlain is working with local employers to offer virtual internships, which may be condensed into short group projects. "We want 100% of our students to complete these experiential learning opportunities."

Students seeking internships should also check with their college's career center for open opportunities, experts say. Additionally, job boards for specific fields, network contacts and LinkedIn can also be valuable resources.

The Value of an Online Internship Experience

Students may lose out on some valuable team-building and brainstorming aspects by participating in an online internship. They may miss some fun perks too, like the go-kart racing and escape rooms GRUBBRR offered past interns.

But there is still significant value in an online internship. Much like a degree from an accredited online university vs. a brick-and-mortar experience, employers shouldn't look down on a virtual internship in favor of face-to-face work.

"Ultimately, the goal is for students to develop skills that are resume-building," Hinterstoisser says.

Whether those skills are developed in person or online shouldn't matter, experts say.

[Read: Co-op vs. Internship: Know the Differences.]

Zietz says students are worried about having a gap on their resume. "This is a tough year for kids graduating to find jobs. I think given where the economy will be next year it's going to be a very competitive, very tough market. You want to have as many things in your favor as possible and obviously real-life experiences are at the top of that."

Real-life experiences extend to virtual internships where students engage in important work.

Ultimately, Zietz says, internships -- whether in-person or online -- are what students make of them.

Kasselberg sees this time as a proving moment when the value of interns is appropriately recognized. Forget the stereotype of interns running errands for corporate bosses; in a remote environment, students will be judged on output alone.

"I would say that the pros so outweigh the cons, in terms of diversity, inclusion and accessibility and in terms of being taken seriously as a student in terms of the actual work that you're doing," Kasselberg says. "If you're interning, virtually, you quite literally cannot run and grab someone's dry cleaning or get coffee for the office."

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