Paul Kelson is a CPA, MSA and instructional assistant professor of Accounting at Illinois State University. Previously, he was an assistant professor at Heartland Community College.
COVID-19 had an immeasurable impact on higher education, and student internships were no exception. As a practicing CPA and faculty member, I had the unique opportunity to witness this impact from an employer’s perspective as well as an instructor’s. Read on to explore how the pandemic no one saw coming changed the internship ecosystem for students and businesses alike.
Student internships during the pandemic
In the throes of COVID-19, we noticed a few student internships were canceled or deferred. Some students even had trouble getting employers to talk to them when seeking internships. But there was also a silver lining to the pandemic: We learned how to adapt and open new doors. Some of the internships that were confirmed right before the pandemic allowed the students to perform duties remotely through Zoom or other platforms that employers were using. The students were still able to meet with their mentors via these platforms to learn about their job and the company. We really appreciated each of the employers who took time to work with interns when they were busy making their regular workforce as efficient as possible during the pandemic.
As with most obstacles, some new methods and procedures that could provide for a more robust experience in the future became available. I had one student who was able to work for an East Coast employer while living in the Midwest. She had done some research in her area of study and found an online company that had started up as an online forum to take the place of in-person venues for music entertainment. Her interest was in concert promotion and mental health care for performers. She was able to assist with the social media portion of promoting and help facilitate the online forums for both attendees and performers. Not only did she gain experience in her field of choice, but she did it in an innovative way.
Student internships post pandemic
These scenarios opened my eyes to the wide market that online internships can provide in a post-pandemic world. Instead of student internships in a district-wide radius of campus, we now have access to internships nation-, and perhaps even, world-wide.
This novel shift means that internships in the future could have a whole new flavor—freeing students from the limitations of local and regional areas. While it’s likely we would have discovered this eventually, the pandemic hastened the process.
Business relationships during the pandemic
As an instructor of our Entrepreneurship class and an advisor for both our Elevating Entrepreneurs competition (think “Shark Tank”) and Phi Beta Lambda (PBL) (student business organization), I grew acutely aware that the pandemic would cause major problems unless we adapted quickly. I used businesses in our local area (our community college district) as guest speakers for my Entrepreneurship class and for our monthly PBL student meetings.
My priority was making sure that we did not miss a monthly meeting for PBL. We were pleasantly surprised when the business speakers were willing to meet through Zoom when on-campus visits were deemed impossible—a shift that yielded a substantial increase in student attendance. In the past, we had the meetings on a Tuesday late afternoon, usually 4:00 or 4:30 p.m., when few classes were in session. During the pandemic however, we switched to a “lunch & learn” over Zoom from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. and the sharp increase in student participation was amazing to see.
When COVID hit in mid-March of 2020, I used entrepreneur podcasts from Enterpreneur.com in place of the guest speakers until I could get something remote established with businesses. The podcasts were well received, but I knew nothing could replace the live interaction with business owners. We were able to set up a Zoom schedule during class and the businesses I contacted were willing and able to work with us. It went very well. We even had one participant who was called to one of their locations in Mississippi the day before our meeting and he met with us from a hotel while on the road.
Our first Elevating Entrepreneurs competition was planned for the end of April 2020. When the pandemic hit, we needed to figure out a way to still have the competition without hosting it on campus. We contacted our local entrepreneurs slated to be the judges and reformatted it to be a Zoom competition. The students submitted their feasibility study, business plan and financial plan to our Canvas learning management system and then we gave the judges access to the documents. The students then met the judges on Zoom for Q&A while the general college and public watched from the virtual audience. It exceeded my expectations.
In 2021, we again hosted the event on Zoom, learning from our first event and tweaking things to make it an even bigger success. The third annual event in 2022 was located in the Workforce Development Center (WDC) Auditorium on the main campus at the college.
Business relationships post pandemic
Just as we learned new procedures and ideas for our student internships, we are going to use new ideas for the rest of our business relationships. With the flexibility Zoom offers, we have a wider area from which to bring in entrepreneurs as guest speakers. For the near future, we will continue to keep the PBL meetings as virtual “lunch & learns.” The students told us they are allowed to listen to the lunch & learn even if they are at work. This is something we would not have thought of if not for the pandemic. The judges for the Elevating Entrepreneurs also decided that they like having the flexibility of obtaining pre-event information through Canvas.
Finally, we have learned a lot about our courses and events that we may not have learned if not for the pandemic. This allows us to think “outside the box” for future classes and events. Alternative delivery in the classroom is no longer limited to online courses. It continues to find its way into our face-to-face classes and college events.
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