The purpose of higher education is to develop the skills needed to find a good job, but earning a degree is not enough to ensure employment. While the classroom serves as the foundation of knowledge for one’s eventual career, internships allow students to apply that knowledge to an actual work environment.
Jennifer Uranga, IDEA Public Schools manager of alumni affairs, said having this experience is crucial for career readiness. Uranga, who has a background in healthcare administration, has been with IDEA for four years and founded the school’s college to career initiative to work with IDEA graduates now in their final years of undergraduate study.
“It’s really just making sure they’re aligned after college,” she said.
Uranga coaches 25 to 30 students a week, which means providing support for resume writing, preparation for interviews, or simply a discussion of career goals. While this program is for IDEA alumni, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and South Texas College have similar programs in place. “Resume and interview preparation is great, but more than anything the one-on-one coaching helps students think through what they’re looking for and plan it out.”
As for finding internships, Uranga said the first step is deciding what type of experience a student is looking for and finding a few companies in that sector. From there, they can begin reaching out through email and offering their service.
She recommends getting an internship, whether paid or unpaid, every summer to gain experience as they progress in their degree. “Even if you have an internship not specifically aligned with your field, you’re still learning a lot about how to work with others and how to work in a professional setting,” she said. “That is going to be important, as employers tend to hire someone who has had any type of experience. This means you’ll have a better chance of finding a job.”
Similarly, if a student does not have previous work experience, she said they can highlight other achievements and involvements in their resume. “It’s important to put skills that have developed over time,” she said. “Sometimes we overlook adding student organizations you were a part of, or events you helped plan. External experience, even if it’s not work experience, will help.”
IDEA also offers an academic services summer internship program at its headquarters in Weslaco. The program began five years ago with 10 interns and has grown over the years to support more than 50 alumni. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the program is being done remotely for the time being.
In addition to internships, developing a relationship with a mentor can provide students with valuable insight — even if the relationship is built online and the two parties cannot physically meet.
“If a student has someone willing to devote time talking to them one-on-one on a regular basis, that’s ideal because you get the opportunity to talk about your field,” Uranga said. “You get key insights specific to that job area, which is important because it can help you figure out whether or not that’s going to be the right job for you.” And in some cases, finding a mentor can lead to an internship and eventual employment.
While email works for reaching out if a student knows of someone they would like to connect with, Uranga suggests creating a profile on LinkedIn, an employment-oriented online service. “A lot of professionals interested in career development and mentoring utilize it to connect with other people,” she said. “If you’re looking for professional growth, there is no better platform.”
With LinkedIn, you can add associations you are interested in, your college or university, and search for people employed in your desired career field. These are just a few of the features of the platform that make it easy to network and find employment opportunities.
Though students who develop these relationships and get real world experience through internships are increasing their chances of finding their “perfect” job, Uranga said amid the changing world and job market affected by COVID-19, those entering need to remain open to other opportunities. “Many students who graduated this year are struggling because they want to find something in their field,” she said. “So being flexible and being open to trying new things is going to be important.”