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College Students Are Left Wondering ‘What If?’ As Summer Internships Are Canceled

A March 19, 2020 tweet by Brooklyn Bliss after her internship was canceled due to COVID-19.
A March 19, 2020 tweet by Brooklyn Bliss after her internship was canceled due to COVID-19.

When Courtney Kleino received a summer internship with Urban Outfitters in December, she was ecstatic. A 20-year-old sophomore finance major at the University of Florida, she had planned to move to Philadelphia on May 28 to start days later at her favorite fashion company.

Brooklyn Bliss, 21, a health and administration major at the University of North Florida, was to help keep track of medical records as an intern at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville. Bliss was to earn academic credit for the experience en route to graduating in December.

Kleino, of Wellington, Palm Beach County, and Bliss, of Jacksonville, learned in March that their internships had been canceled. They are among thousands of college students across the U.S. for whom the coronavirus has meant the loss of this rite of passage into the workforce.

Summer is when students get the hopefully high-energy and learning-from-mistakes chance to make a name for themselves as interns.
However, because of COVID-19, and the resulting safety concerns and devastation to the economy, internships have been lost, interviews postponed, calls and emails left unreturned.

“I just can’t stop thinking ‘What if?’” Kleino said recently. “What if I had really liked a department I shadowed? What if corporate finance for fashion brands is what I’m supposed to do? Now I don’t think I’ll get to have that experience until years after college.”

Bliss said UNF is trying to create an online course to teach what would have been learned during an internship. She said she’s doubtful it could offer the same hands-on experience. Even more troubling is what the lost opportunity will mean for her short- and long-term prospects.

“Without the internship, it’s definitely going to hinder the time between graduation and finding a good job,” Bliss said. “Because you don’t have this connection – or the ability to show them how good of a worker you are.”

James Schindler, the career and job placement coordinator at Sante Fe College, said this remains a great time for students to have their resumes and cover letters ready for recruiters.

“When this thing finally comes to head, and we get it under control, the jobs are going to come back,” Schindler said. “Students are going to be successful. They’re going to be able to work in the careers that they’ve put so much time and effort into pursuing.”

Sante Fe has moved its career and job placement services online, and its students can also schedule a mock interview with Schindler over Zoom to prepare for an upcoming interview. He said he has contacted 500 employers through a student job board to see what jobs are available.

“Maybe they need somebody for a day, or maybe they need somebody temporarily for a week,” Schindler said. “I want those opportunities to be available for the students, so I’m still pushing that hard and heavy.”

The UF student affairs office has created a virtual platform to support students while they are away from campus due to COVID-19.

Many UF-sponsored career fairs are still happening online, including one each for aspiring physicians, communicators and educators this month. Students can RSVP for an event, and employers can review their resumes and portfolios before speaking with them electronically.
“We’ve done a series of email communications that have gone out to students from me to remind them that we are here to support them,” said Ja’Net Glover, UF’s senior career services director.

Glover said many typical hiring partners are still recruiting students, except for industries such as aviation, hospitality and travel.

Delaney Vanek, 21, studies ecology and biology at Florida State University. Since January, she’s worked as a gopher tortoise conservation intern for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Her duties consist of contacting animal rehabbers and veterinarians and creating a master list for people who need help with an injured or sick tortoise.

Now working from her home in Fleming Island, Clay County, it’s harder for Vanek to receive help from co-workers. She wonders if she’s spending too much time in front of a digital screen.

“With all of the classes being online, that’s already a lot,” she said. “And then I have 10 hours of internship on the computer, when I would normally have meetings with people.”

Vanek also said she worries that the lack of in-person communication with her supervisors could make it harder to stay on full time when the internship ends in May.

“I think it’s so crucial in these types of businesses to make a face to face connection,” she said.

Before the pandemic, Dylan Burgin worked every day in Dr. Kelly Rice’s microbiology research lab at UF. Now Burgin, 21, a senior microbiology and cell science major, is spending the remainder of his final semester laying low in Gainesville instead of going home to Sarasota.

He had planned to move to Maryland in June to work as a research assistant at the National Institutes of Health. He would first learn to use the equipment, then relevant procedures and lab protocols, and then how to assist on research projects and running experiments to collect data.

Burgin was looking forward to widening his range of research experience by working at the institute for two years before applying to medical schools. Now, he is in limbo.

“I haven’t heard anything from them, and I think they’re not really sure what’s happening with that program,” he said. “I know the summer programs got canceled.”

His uncertainty echoes Kleino's question, one many college graduates are asking across the globe -- "What if?"

Emily is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.