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How to maximize your internship

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Internship concept with young woman (Credit: Melpomene via fotolia)

Over the coming weeks, thousands of students will begin internships. In almost every industry, companies bring on these interns in a mutually beneficial relationship. The intern gains firsthand experience and knowledge of the company and the larger industry, while the company gets a chance to develop potential long-term talent. Recent research has shown that companies increasingly prefer these kinds of internship experiences over those who simply have a college degree.

The difference between a good internship and a great internship is not only about what kinds of experiences and opportunities the company can offer, it’s about how deeply the intern engages with the overall experience. With that in mind, let’s explore a few ways that can help anyone maximize their internship.

The overarching principle that can most dramatically alter your time as an intern is learning to engage in reflective practices. Peter Senge’s book The Fifth Discipline is mainly about how organizations can improve, but within the folds of the argument are important personal habits that contribute to overall organizational success.

The central habit Senge discusses is how to move from reactive learning to generative learning. When you are not fully engaged, you only learn when other people help you explore what’s happening around you. That’s reactive learning. When you are fully engaged, though, you begin to ask those questions of yourself. That’s generative learning. When you decide to be a generative learner, you actively take steps to get the most out of whatever comes your way, good or bad. With that in mind, here are three specific generative practices that will help you become a more reflective learner.

Keep a journal

The easiest way to stimulate your reflective capacity to learn is to regularly journal about your experience. Too many people shy away from journaling because they feel that they don’t have anything to say, or they become intimidated thinking about the blank page. Don’t overwhelm yourself with thinking you have to come up with profound thoughts, though. Start by making a list of all the different things you did throughout the day. Then list a few things that you learned that day. From there, you have raw materials to work with and move forward. It is important to do this regularly, every day, because at the end of a week everything begins to blur together. Writing things down helps mitigate that blur from taking place.

Get to know the people in your office

If you don’t have an office, you can apply the same concept to your teammates, fellow interns, and beyond. However, I mention getting to know other people in your organization because often we only challenge ourselves incrementally rather than stepping outside our normal comfort zones. Most interns will only get to know other interns, missing the opportunity to cultivate new relationships with others in the organization and truly learn about what it’s like to work in that industry fulltime. Ask some of the other people in your office if you can go to lunch with them or work out after hours. These kinds of friendships can give you a greater feel for what the job is really like, and will also help you develop a stronger professional network that might come in handy in the future.

Observe the habits of role models

One of the first things we do when we get into new environments is pick up the undercurrents of the formal and informal hierarchy of a place. Whom does everybody else respect? Whom do they fear? Once you start to get a better understanding of how things operate at your particular organization, pick one or two people that you want to emulate and begin to really observe their habits. When do they get to the office? How do they treat others? How do they dress? You can add a column to your journal where you list what things you’re noticing about that other person. If you have the opportunity, after spending some time observing that person, ask them if you could go to lunch with them or talk with them about some of the things you’ve seen in them that you want to grow in yourself.

Maximizing your internship opportunity is really no different than approaching any new season of life. It’s all about being open to what God might do in and through you, and it mirrors the way God grows us spiritually, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes: “Is all this a fanciful illusion? Is it impossible? It would be, were it not the fruit, growing entirely by its own power, of the Spirit to whom we have entrusted ourselves and who intends to bring all this about in us while we, astonished and adoring, let the Spirit work.”