In this time of COVID-19, we know the importance of being flexible. The old ways of being simply don’t fit the current reality. However, for many post-secondary students, internships are still a necessary step on the path to graduation, and the “How to Support an Intern” rulebook was written in a world that could not have imagined our current circumstances.
So, in the hopes of starting a new rulebook, we want to provide a primer for all of the professionals – faculty supervisors, site supervisors, mentors and others – who have been called upon to see these students through their final stages toward being full-fledged professionals. In short, it’s about modelling the behaviours you want to encourage, and taking a disciplined approach to help them – and you – see it through to the end.
Be present, and help them be present
Think about how you’re spending your scheduled time with the intern. When you’re with them (physically or virtually), how do you spend that time? Every internship needs some administrative housekeeping and occasional troubleshooting, but with pandemic-related mandates and guidelines shifting week by week, it’s easy to feel as though we’re spending most of our time reacting to change. Ensure that you are giving enough time to all aspects of your responsibilities: educational, administrative and supportive.
For supervisors, “support” has never been more important. Whether we recognize it or not, many interns are in survival mode. Shutdowns and illnesses could stall or stop their progression, and that could have dire consequences for a timely graduation and their career plans. For them, a great deal is at stake. Students may find it difficult to be mindful and engage in the richness of a work placement when they’re living in fear.
In your role as a leader, you have the opportunity to help ground them in the present. Help them to accept the reality of the current context and of the unpredictability of living in a pandemic. One way to do this is to start with simply being mindful: pay close attention to any intense emotions that you may be experiencing. Be mindful of your own stresses, worries and concerns. From there, you can help your intern explore their own experiences. Offer reassurance that you know they are trying their best, given the circumstances. This is an important step in helping them accept that these are challenging times, but things will be okay.
Be organized, and help them be organized
As professionals, we rely on daily, casual conversations with the people in our workplaces to keep abreast of the current happenings. A lot can be learned from what we see and overhear by simply being in the office space with each other. Using collaborative online tools like shared calendars and checklists, along with shared documents, can help keep a sense of being present in each others working day, even if we’re physically very far apart.
“Offer reassurance that you know they are trying their best, given the circumstances.”
Similarly, we often rely on the usual ebbs and flows of our schedules to guide our workflow. Currently, we are experiencing an extended period of disruption. That might require you to be more flexible with how your typical internships look. Because of this, we have to return to our goals: those we set for ourselves, and those we set with our interns. Every internship is guided by a mutually agreed-upon set of goals, so be prepared to revisit those goals more often than you normally would. Plan for, and revisit, how to accomplish your organizational goals with the support of your intern if circumstances change. Are these goals still relevant, considering the circumstances?
Be kind, and help them be kind
There are many benefits to practising empathy, especially during a global pandemic. In addition to helping you connect with others, being empathic also helps you regulate your emotions in times of stress. You can build empathy by engaging meaningfully with others and being aware of other people’s needs. In this way, empathy is the foundation of the internship relationship.
So, give yourself a break. Be kind to yourself and manage your own self-care, and that will help you be kind and flexible with your intern. It is OK if you are not working as efficiently as usual. The fact that you’re reading an article on how to be a better support shows that you care. Take a moment, be mindful of your successes and share your experience with your intern.
Be a source of hope
Current circumstances challenge us to remain positive in times of uncertainty. We understand support as being a protective factor and a predictor of resilience. However, it’s important to remember that your intern will need different supports than a typical employee or a typical intern. For example, your intern is facing the uncertainty of entering a very difficult job market at a very isolating time.
One way to tackle this is by helping them build their professional network: connect them with trusted colleagues, potential mentors, prospective collaborators, and others who will be vital to their success in their professional lives. Go to the effort of making introductions, as personal connection has never been more important. Mid-pandemic, we’re all somewhat isolated, and new professionals simply don’t have the same networking opportunities as they would have, pre-pandemic.
Overall, the very experience of an internship is a hopeful one. It’s a time of learning and connecting. Currently, it is important to foster a sense of hope and remind interns that with support, you trust they are capable of managing the demands of the profession after the internship, just as they have managed the challenges that the pandemic is imposing on them. Sometimes, all that requires is reminding them, “You’ve got this.”