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Internships Aren't All About Careers

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This post is by Tristen Gamboa, a Junior at High Tech High North County

During the end of the junior year, my school requires students to participate in a full-time four-week internship. They use the internship experience as a way for students to develop Deeper Learning skills. Beforehand, students go through a series of workshops on how to write cover letters, build a resume, and reach out to possible employers.

Many students, including myself, are excited to leave for internship and get the opportunity to work in job fields they are considering pursuing. However, I didn't have much of a career direction when I began the internship application process. I took the tools I had--my previous learning experiences, my work ethic, and an open mindset--and immediately started applying to different internships in various fields. I applied at an avalanche research center, a synthetic biology lab, the national park service, a kinesiology research lab, a local engineering firm, and an electronics company. I had no idea what I wanted to do.

I soon got denied by each of these sites, either because they could only host an intern at a later time or were unable to take an intern. I later went to my advisor for some support, and he mentioned a possible internship with the High Tech High Graduate School of Education (GSE). I had volunteered for them a few times before and I knew that no matter what I was doing, an internship with the graduate school would be a meaningful experience. I quickly reached out to the Center for Research on Equity & Innovation (CREI), a department of the GSE. When they offered to take me, I happily accepted, even though it was not what I was expecting to do for my junior internship.

The month I had working with the research center was a transformative learning experience. I'm not saying it suddenly made me realize what I want to do, but it has given me a sense of direction and also lessened the pressure I feel to pick "the right" major going into college.

Skills I Developed In My Internship

At CREI I worked with the Improvement Science team, which addresses issues, creates solutions, and facilitates change in the organization. Much of the work I did was collecting and analyzing data, setting up interventions, and helping facilitate professional development.

Before my internship, I had heard the term Deeper Learning thrown around, but I never knew exactly what it was. I just thought that Deeper Learning meant more in-depth learning experiences where students are engaged. However, that isn't quite what it means. As defined by the Hewlett Foundation, "Deeper Learning is an umbrella term for the skills and knowledge that students must possess to succeed in 21st century jobs and civic life." Deeper Learning skills include critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and inquiry. I eventually realized that my internship required I possess these skills even more than having knowledge of particular content.

I had to think critically in order to synthesize written observation data we had collected from teachers and educators, before I could draw conclusions from it. I learned how to be thoughtful and effective in my use of language when I carried out interviews or wrote emails. I often collaborated with others when I was doing research so I could gather multiple perspectives and clarify my own understanding. When I was helping design solutions for problems in the organization, I was always evaluating myself. I constantly asked myself, Does this solution address the problem? How effective might this be in comparison to other solutions? How can we measure improvement? All of these skills I either had to gain or further develop in order to keep up with my colleagues who had degrees and many years of experience.

What I Learned From My Colleagues and the Workplace

During my internship experience, I worked with many wonderful colleagues in the improvement team, who all possessed a certain characteristic: They were all lifelong learners. They're the ones who acknowledge that they don't know everything, who do research on their own time to inform their practice, and are always striving to improve. Even in the workplace, adults are still learning how to do things and constantly adapting to the new technology in their field.

I didn't realize, until I started working in an office, how common it is to switch career paths. All of my colleagues started in different job fields before becoming a part the improvement team at the CREI. When I asked each of them how it was when they switched careers, they all said the skills in college prepared them for their careers and translated even after they switched fields. That is because college taught them to be problem solvers and adaptable to their environment. It is their adaptability and ability to inquire that allows them to be successful in the workplace. Now I understand that it's not the end of the world if I choose to change career paths.


Looking Forward To The Future

By the end of my internship, I discovered that as long as I know how to access and use the tools around me, I can easily learn the content. Being able to access and use resources is as important as having a degree when pursuing a successful career. This is a skill I know will help me through college, in the workplace, and for the rest of my life.

Now looking back, I realize it didn't matter which internship I chose to do. It mattered more that I had exposure to the workplace, than being exposed to a specific career field. Having a patient mentor and colleagues who were willing to take the risk of assigning me tasks with great responsibility was what made this a unique learning experience. It taught me how valuable the ability to adapt to the outside world is. I am extremely grateful to have spent a month with the CREI, and I can't wait to see where my senior internship takes me. 

Photo by Christian Tamayo.

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