When Internships Go Virtual

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Monday, October 18, 2021
By Brenda Stover
Photo by iStock/Ivan Pantic
How the Villanova School of Business made sure its students would succeed when student internships became online experiences.

Internships are crucial components of a business school education, providing ways for students to refine skills, gain real-world experience, and explore industries, career paths, and employers. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, however, in-person internships came to a halt. Some companies canceled their internship programs outright, while others converted to remote versions.

Not knowing how far-reaching and long-lasting the pandemic would be, the Villanova School of Business (VSB) in Pennsylvania moved quickly to help students pivot to a new reality as in-person internships were converted to remote ones, full summer experiences were truncated to a couple of weeks, and planned experiences were completely lost.

We made sure that those who were able to secure virtual internships were set up for success as they continued to develop the critical skills they typically would hone during in-person experiences. We also offered nontraditional development opportunities to those who missed the internship opportunity altogether. Our approach was to guide all students in building professional skills and networks online, so that their efforts to advance their careers and enhance their résumés wouldn’t stop—even if much of the world had.

Capitalizing on Virtual Experiences

A comprehensive career development plan was part of VSB’s vision for helping students navigate the conditions created by the pandemic. Our Backpack-to-Briefcase (B2B) curriculum, which is a requirement for all undergraduate business students, embeds professional development into each year of the core business curriculum. Among other things, B2B helps students develop self-assessment skills, build personal brands, use internship/job search and virtual interviewing tools, and develop networking and presentation skills. It also helps them prepare key portfolio pieces such as their résumés and LinkedIn profiles.

While this curriculum had been developed pre-pandemic, it provided students with a strong foundation for meeting the various challenges that arose in the spring and summer of 2020. It proved to be an ideal launchpad for students to not only persevere, but excel, when facing unprecedented internship conditions.

To supplement what students had learned through B2B, VSB’s O’Donnell Center for Professional Development enhanced efforts to make sure students could use their virtual experiences as career development tools. We knew it was critical to quickly orient students to navigating recruiting processes and networking activities that had become fully remote.

Within two weeks of the campus shutdown in spring 2020, we launched a daily webinar called Reimagining Your Summer Experience. We also expanded our Rise to the Top Experiential Education Workshop series to add a session that focused on “virtual presence.” In addition, we took an all-hands-on deck approach to offering expanded one-on-one coaching sessions on internship search activities and strengths assessment. We partnered with the University Career Center so that we could convert critical employer activities, such as our Wall Street Meetup Series, to virtual experiences instead of canceling them.

With the start of the new academic year, we evolved the B2B curriculum to address the new challenges that had been brought on by the pandemic, such as the absence of in-person contact with company professionals. Enhancements included the addition of exercises that guided students in evaluating an organization’s culture and alignment (or lack thereof) with their personal priorities.

Providing Developmental Opportunities

During the summer of 2020, VSB faculty, academic departments, and centers collaborated to fill the void for students who had lost summer internships. We also provided supplemental opportunities for all students who were hungry to find ways to productively use the unexpected time they had gained.

These developmental opportunities took various forms and addressed a wide array of career interests and professional skills:

  • Management faculty developed a summer practicum called Leading Through Disruption, which featured both academic content and a client project.
  • The Center for Marketing and Consumer Insights built a virtual marketing immersion site.
  • The DiLella Center for Real Estate launched virtual micro-internships.
  • Economics faculty offered a boot camp covering Stata, a statistical software package, as well as research assistanceships.
  • The O’Donnell Center offered scholarships for free enrollment in Envestnet, an online wealth management certification program.

We provided supplemental opportunities for all students who were hungry to find ways to productively use the unexpected time they had gained.

Additionally, VSB augmented the number of career education and networking events it offered throughout the summer. These included a Summer Success on the Street finance series, Tech Tuesday series, Careers in Accounting series, Wildcat Wednesdays Real Estate Alumni series, Consulting Boot Camp, and VU Women in Tech Saturday Summer Sessions. These programs primarily featured alumni from across the country, many of whom were engaged with our students in this way for the first time because the virtual nature of the events erased geographic constraints.

In partnership with the University Career Center and other colleges, we advocated for a universitywide subscription to LinkedIn Learning that would allow members of our community free access to more than 15,000 courses offered through the platform. The university had already been considering this resource, but the impact of the pandemic on the student experience and our efforts escalated the initiative. The result was that our new graduates, current students, faculty, and staff gained this benefit during the summer of 2020. Through the platform, our community members could engage in self-paced learning and demonstrate substantive skill-building in the absence of traditional internships.

Virtual: Pros and Cons

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, there were mixed views on the value and substance of virtual experiences. Often, remote internships and networking experiences were seen as subpar compared to in-person ones. After watching our students spend nearly 18 months participating in virtual internships and career education programs, we realized that there were numerous benefits to this format for students and employers. Four benefits stood out the most.

First, remote internships allowed students to assert initiative and develop self-management skills as they worked in remote, unsupervised environments. These skills will be in high demand in the hybrid work format emerging in the business world.

Second, our remote-only career programs and other employer recruiting activities provided students with exposure to a broader array of employers and alumni who came from a wider geographical area. As a clear illustration of this positive trend, the University Career Center logged a 700 percent increase in employer information sessions made available to our students during the fall of 2020. Many of these sessions were delivered by companies that connected with Villanova for the first time. Because the need to physically travel to our campus was eliminated, it became more feasible for them to engage with our students.

With other firms, our students enjoyed expanded exposure due to the virtual-only option for employer recruiting activities. For instance, in the past, alumni representing Boston Consulting Group typically visited campus once or twice a year. During the pandemic, our students were invited to participate in a robust virtual series of firmwide sessions that went far beyond a simple introduction to the company.

Third, virtual internships opened up new opportunities for students with financial and geographic limitations; the remote format options allowed companies to offer positions to students who would not have applied previously due to these factors. For instance, a VSB student who lives in Kansas City was interested in interning with a digital advertising company in New York or Los Angeles but couldn’t afford the summer living expenses in those cities. However, during the summer of 2020, she landed a virtual internship with Macro, a global digital media firm based in L.A. As more employers realize that virtual internships can help them diversify their workforces, we expect that additional companies will offer remote opportunities.

Students had to be more deliberate about creating points of connection and following up on opportunities during the pandemic. The organic nature of networking was minimized or no longer an option.

Finally, investment in infrastructure paid off. As previously mentioned, the B2B curriculum that had been developed over the past 10 years was critical in providing students with a baseline set of skills to face the internship and professional development challenges caused by the pandemic. In addition, during the summer of 2021, VSB’s Moran Center for Global Leadership, the O’Donnell Center, and the Villanova University Office of Education Abroad collaborated to provide hands-on opportunities for students seeking international experiences. While students couldn’t travel and study abroad, they were able to participate in remote internships with companies located in Spain, New Zealand, South Africa, the Czech Republic, and the U.K. These placements were made possible through our longstanding partnerships with organizations such as EUSA and CIS Abroad.

Of course, virtual internships came with challenges as well, particularly in the area of networking. Students had to be more deliberate about creating points of connection and following up on opportunities during the pandemic. The organic nature of networking that typically existed during in-person work experiences was minimized or no longer an option.

In the past, students often shared stories of working on a bank trading desk alongside a Villanova alumnus who, during the course of the workday, would recommend specific colleagues at other banks with whom the student should connect. With the absence of the face-to-face daily interactions, networking required much greater intentionality on the part of the students—they had to look up alumni online, send messages, and request and conduct Zoom chats. Sometimes they never got the referrals to other banking professionals.

Students were frustrated with the effort involved with online networking and what seemed to be less authentic interactions, but we emphasized that it was still possible to have meaningful interactions and that these interactions were essential for their professional growth. This situation has led us to rethink our approach to coaching students on how to develop their networks in a virtual or hybrid world.

Seeing the Results

While many companies eliminated or significantly shortened internships in 2020, that trend reversed this year. In the summer of 2021, about 95 percent of the companies that traditionally offered in-person internships to our students provided remote options for a typical length length of time—usually eight to 10 weeks. Some of the companies providing domestic opportunities included Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Citibank, Morgan Stanley Deloitte, Ernst & Young, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, Grant Thornton, Crowe, BCG, and FTI Consulting.

Until next year, we won’t have a final tally of how many VSB students received full-time offers from 2021 internships, but we expect that the pandemic-fueled switch to virtual will end up having a minimal effect. In fact, we’re already seeing a ramping up of hiring. Last fall, some of the top-tier firms backed off from hiring graduates for full-time positions, but some of them ultimately came back to us in the spring and doubled down on their offers. They were not only back to their typical hiring levels, but in a number of cases were looking to increase the number of offers they made due to business growth as the economy rebounded.

While the pandemic has created roadblocks in many ways, it also has strengthened the Villanova School of Business and our students. We learned that remote internships and career experiences provide students with viable and valuable development opportunities, while providing employers with access to a diverse group of students. We also saw our faculty and staff become more skilled at virtual work and networking. Many of them jumped in to broaden their own geographic and business contacts.

Over and above these gains, the pandemic brought a sense of validation to the Villanova School of Business, reaffirming our purpose as a teacher-scholar institution and our holistic approach to shaping the student experience. As we continue to equip students with both educational and professional competence, we are prepared to face the next challenge with a sense of renewed confidence.

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Brenda Stover
Assistant Dean, Villanova School of Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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