Professional knowledge from a college internship: What implicit wisdom carries over into the launching of a work career.

January 1, 2020 at 9:26 PM
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Professional knowledge from a college internship: What implicit wisdom carries over into the launching of a work career.

Naomi Ducat QC’ 16 and Jim Stellar

Naomi has worked full-time for about 3 years, but she did many internships in college.  We first met in 2014 when she was a junior-year honors student in psychology and media studies at Queens College CUNY and I was provost.  Now she works as an Associate at Booze Allen, following her previous job at Deloitte as a Business Consultant.  While she had many intern experiences in high school and college, including working with me on a book project and writing several previous blogs (e.g. a powerful one on gender diversity), her first serious college internship was in 2015 as part of the CUNY Service Corps at the Queens Library as a Communications Assistant.  She followed that with summer job as a Corporate Communications intern at Scholastic.  She then did two internships in her senior year. The first one was at the Department of Defense, and that led to a remarkable opportunity in the fall semester in the White House as a Foreign Affairs Intern in the office of Vice President Joe Biden. 

With this as background, the question is what did she learn from those interning experiences that she may not have learned in college.  Naomi, what did you feel you learned, particularly implicitly?

During each of my jobs and internships, I learned several skills necessary to contribute to the industries in which I was participating. However, most importantly, with each experience I had, my mindset about career development began to change. Instead of thinking solely about micro-steps, for example, my next internship or a new skill, and I began to also think more abstractly and strategically about macro-goals. I developed the capacity to dream about opportunities that earlier would have seemed so out of reach, they were beyond the scope of my imagination. For example, when I interned at Scholastic in NYC, I had the opportunity to participate in meetings with international and global branches of the brand. This helped me realize that people like me, who work where I work, have moved to new cities to pursue their dreams. Though it hadn’t occurred to me earlier, I realized that perhaps I could too. Later, when I moved to Washington DC to intern at the Department of Defense (DoD), I had exposure to DoD officers who spent their days preparing for briefings, which they would later deliver at the White House. From this, I realized that people who were once like me, who worked where I worked, provided support to the executive office of the President. This exposure aroused an aspiration, which once seemed crazy, to pursue an internship at the White House. These are two of many moments and realizations that taught me to imagine a life for myself outside of my initial world experience, and to make strides to turn imagination into reality.

Thank you. Now you are still doing four volunteer experiences while you are working (e.g. Sponsor Committee for the New York Women in Communications, Board member of the Urban Librarians Unite, Chair of Washington DC Chapter’s Social Committee of the Whitehouse Intern Alumni Network, and Volunteer Coordinator for the Obama Alumni Association). How do these ongoing experiences contribute to your professional development?

As I grow in my career, I have become acquainted with the expectation to develop some sort of a subject matter expertise. This pursuit, though valuable and necessary, also narrows avenues of exploration that we more openly permit ourselves to pursue earlier in our careers and during internships. For this reason, I find it extremely important to nurture and develop interests that are independent from my daily professional pursuits, as they allow us to maintain a wide aperture for personal exploration. In addition, as time passes, it becomes increasingly easy to inadvertently link our identity, feelings of self-worth, and social status with our careers, achievements, and shortfalls. This linkage is heightened by the fact that we spend most of our waking hours at work. It is only natural that we would seek community through relationships with our colleagues. This sense of community is important, but if we begin to rely on it as a way to determine our self-worth, we set ourselves up for a life full of dependencies and vulnerabilities. Therefore, in order to avoid conflating my personhood with my career, my social status with my job, and my self-worth with my professional achievements, I find it important to invest time in people, organizations, and communities that share my values, and with whom I can support common and meaningful goals.

Good advice.  In a recent podcast we interviewed a labor economist on the topic of mal-employment after graduation. Sadly, it hits about a third of college graduates and cuts their income by about half, an outcome that is made even worse by college debt.  What he says is that it takes planning to make the jump from what is needed to succeed in college to the skills needed to land a job with a good salary and a good future.  How did your internships and how does your current volunteer work, support that ongoing skill development and support your networking in a way that is useful for your career advancement?

Whether we admit it or not, hiring a new employee is always a risk. For this reason, employers often seek experience as evidence of a track record that can predict future success. Unfortunately, as we know all too well, this reality often puts students from low income households at a disadvantage, as many cannot afford to volunteer without pay or accept internships for college credit and thus the cost of tuition. Luckily, through scholarships, paid internships, and city-subsidized work, I was granted opportunities to “prove” that if hired by prospective employers I would likely meet expectations. An example of this was my jump from interning at the White House to receiving a job offer at Deloitte, one of the world’s top consulting firms. Deloitte invited me to participate in three interviews and a case study to be considered for employment with the firm because I had a track record that inspired trust; trust that interviewing me would not be a waste of time; and trust that if I was hired, I would have the work ethic, critical thinking skills, and business etiquette to succeed at the firm. At every job I have had and interview that I’ve participated in, I’ve been asked to reflect on my past experiences. For me, my job experiences, internships, and volunteer efforts have taught me valuable lessons, but for those who are evaluating me, these experiences represent potential for contribution, commitment, and growth.

To paraphrase what Oscar Wilde famously said, “A cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  So how do we know value and how does that grow from experience as in the case discussed above?  We think the answer must lie with the impact of that experience on what JS referred to in his 2017 book (mentioned above) as implicit or unconscious decision-making.  But it must do more than that to go from professional knowledge to professional wisdom – the two processes of conscious and unconscious decision-making must communicate and not have just the implicit process signal to the conscious process the emotional valance of its output.  Perhaps this is what ND was referring to above in going beyond “micro-steps” or not allowing a growing knowledge to “narrow avenues of exploration.”  There must be a “mechanics feel” as mentioned in the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.”  In the professional world, this “feel” would not be physical but social.  It would combine a felt knowledge of the workplace with the conscious knowledge of the work itself.  Then, the practitioner could be said to be professionally mature, ready to engage with clients, able to earn their salary, and maybe even wise.


Brain Networks: Blog 2: Skill-Learning Networks

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