Note: This is a longer version of a post I recently shared on LinkedIn
I’ve become familiar with internships. From having one myself last summer (it was a blast!) to managing and coaching interns, I’ve gained a good sense of the value and opportunity that internships provide. Thus, I highly recommend people use them to develop and grow in their career.
But when I think about my own internship experience, one of the most influential decisions that I ever made was choosing to turn down an internship.
Seven years ago, I was doing what every driven student in the Boston College Carroll School of Management was doing – polishing my resume, writing cover letters, and applying to as many internships as possible.
As a natural planner and go-getter, I had developed a plan for success – the premise was simple: getting good internship experiences means getting good jobs, and getting good jobs helps you start a good career.
But amidst the interviews and 20 revisions of my resume I saw another opportunity come across my plate – possibly becoming an orientation leader for first-year students at Boston College.
As an orientation leader, I would be working with fellow faculty, administrators, and leaders to welcome incoming first-year students. It felt like a combination of being a mentor, peer, friend, advisor, camp counselor, and personal coach.
Having had great coaches, mentors, and guides in my life I saw the value of these people. So I really strived to do the same for others, which made this an attractive opportunity.
The challenge would be that I would have to forego gaining relevant business experience, and do something entirely different than the majority of my classmates. Not to mention, go down a path that was actually pretty far from my own “plan.”
The more I applied to internships, the better the idea of being an orientation leader stuck in my mind. Up to that point, I had really enjoyed my experience at Boston College, and I had navigated it smoothly thanks to the guidance of my own orientation leader and countless other students.
As a passionate believer in the Jesuit mission of using your talents to benefit others, just thinking about the opportunity excited and energized me in ways unlike any of the internships for which I was applying. But I couldn’t see how this path fit in my plan, so I was hesitant to move forward.
When it comes to making decisions, I take into account both my head and my heart. Sometimes there’s alignment, and other times there’s discomfort, and this time it was the latter. With this one, I couldn’t ignore my heart, and decided to apply.
After applying and making it through a few rounds of interviews, I was given an offer to become an orientation leader.
At the time, my friends and family were supported but perplexed. They knew I loved business and was motivated and driven by my “plan,” so doing something that derailed from this seemed unlike me.
Furthermore, this was also in spring of 2008. I certainly admit I did not foresee the biggest recession coming since the Great Depression. But others around me warned about the potential limitations I was putting on myself for getting a full-time job after college. I respected their opinions, but mustered up the courage and confidence to stand by my decision.
Instead of learning the ins and outs of a business, networking with executives, and going to happy hour, I was advising students on what classes to take, how to adjust to life on your own (no parents!) and honing my dodge ball, acting, and icebreaker skills.
It was far from that internship I set out to discover, but I loved every second of it. Sure, sometimes I got envious of my classmates who were interning at investment banks, consulting firms and Fortune 500 companies, and getting “real world experience.” But what I gained was just as real world as working a “traditional internship.” (I am also certain they were not playing dodge ball at work!)
That summer, I had a sense of purpose. That was to help incoming students and parents feel comfortable and excited about their opportunity to pursue higher education.Having gone through the transition myself, I could speak openly and honestly about my own experience. Furthermore, getting to work alongside fellow students, faculty and administrators who were just as passionate about the Boston College experience and mission gave me energy and enthusiasm that I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Being an orientation leader did not feel like work – it felt like an extension of being the best version of myself. I could use my skills, talents, and leadership abilities to help other people. Furthermore, it taught me skills and lessons that transformed my life and are still relevant to me today.
First, it taught me to how to problem solve on the fly. With a team of 43 other members, 350+ students and 200+ parents, there was always something deviating from plan.
While we went through an exhaustive two-week training program, no manual could possibly prepare you for everything you’d encounter. There were countless times when I was put in positions where I had to find solutions on the fly – to make sure our end customers (students and/or parents) felt comfortable and got what they needed. As a consultant, I am in the business of problem solving, so learning how to come up with solutions instead of merely identifying problems was a valuable skill.
Secondly, the role taught me how to empathize with diverse groups of people. While going to college is an exciting opportunity, it also causes a lot of anxiety and concern. Furthermore, not everyone loves a mandatory orientation. At times, it was challenging and difficult to understand when people weren’t excited, or why they would fight you on things they had to do or not do, or why they wouldn’t follow instructions. But when you took the time to understand what was driving their motivations, their behaviors and words made sense.
I learned to respond in ways that demonstrated empathy and understanding, but also drove towards solutions that benefited everyone. In my career, I’ve had to build relationships with people, from the administrative staff up to the C-Suite. Learning how to see things through their perspective has helped me refine my approach to building relationships when working with clients.
Last but not least, I learned a lot about motivating and influencing others. As a 20-year-old, I was responsible for 10-15 students each week. While I was older and experienced, I didn’t necessarily have management control over these students. So learning how to motivate and guide people to accomplish what you’ve been tasked with doing was not always easy.
In my experience, I’ve often had to figure out how to get things done without having formal influence, titles, or power. I have learned along the way that sometimes the most effective people in an organization are not always the ones with the title, but the ones who know how to motivate and influence others regardless of their title.
As someone who has worked in roles where I’ve been tasked with “getting shit done,” these lessons were invaluable to helping me drive execution of projects and initiatives, without necessarily having formal power or control.
Since I passed on that internship, I’ve worked for one of the largest consulting firms, Fortune’s most innovative company, and graduated from business school. So while not having an internship deviated a bit from my life plan at 20, I feel fortunate and privileged to be where I am seven years later.
On a personal level, working on a high-performing team with 43 other motivated, intelligent, and qualified individuals helped me build incredible relationships with countless people. Some of my closest friends today came from that summer – I’ve traveled the world, been in weddings, and navigated the highs (successes) and lows (failures, deaths) with these friends. I’ve always been blessed with good people in my life, and many of them came from that phenomenal experience.
Sometimes, opportunities come up that don’t seem to fit our plan, and it’s easy to write them off. From what I’ve learned from my #interning experience, having a plan is great, but going off the plan can open your aperture to opportunities and experiences that you never thought were possible.
Furthermore, it’s important to listen and balance the head (logic, reasoning) and the heart (feeling, emotion.) Both are needed to help you guide your life choices and decisions.
That summer, my decision to not take that internship changed my life, and I’m forever grateful for that experience. And the next time I take a job that includes playing dodge ball, I know I’ll be prepared