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Turn a Gopher Internship into Positive Experience

Alright, I confess. I was a gopher. Not the Discovery Channel "Look at the cute little rodent" type, or the "Hi, I'm Gopher, I'll be your ship's steward here on the Love Boat" kind, but instead the "Hey, could you 'go-fer' a cup of coffee for me" type of gopher. Only I wasn't called a gopher -- I was called an intern.

Each year, thousands of students take the first pivotal step toward the working world in various internships. Some learn the skills that will help gain employment; others learn the difference between cappuccino and latte. (It's the amount of froth, by the way.) Obviously, I learned the latter.

You see, I made that leap from classroom to office in what I thought would be one of the single greatest experiences of my life.

Good-bye, Little House on the Prairie
Off I moved to New York -- the most expensive city in the world for my unpaid internship. That's right, unpaid. But, hey, like I said, this would be my greatest accomplishment. My coup de grace. I was doing it for the love of the work. Isn't that payment enough? Not to mention the big name I'd get to put on my resume when it was all over.

In my exuberance, along with a group of students from across the country, I arrived ready for action. Certain we'd be hobnobbing with the show's star and other celebs. Certain we'd be an integral part of bringing this show into your home nightly. In all, there were 11 of us. Each one of us possessed the same naivete. Jaws dropped and eyes widened as we took our posts as interns.

Days passed. I made photocopies. More days passed. I answered phones. Even more days passed. I got lunch for everyone but me. Come on, coach. I'm ready to play. Put me in the big game. And there's the buzzer. Game over. Everyone go home.

Five months had passed, and a little wiser about the world, I returned to school. At the time I left, I was angry. Five months of menial tasks and gopher work had shattered my idealistic image of the working world and of my magical second parent, television. It was the classic gopher internship. Menial tasks are the order of the day. Every day. Of course, not all internships are like that.

Words of Wisdom
About half of the nation's students participate in internships. And the cold, hard fact is that gruntwork and menial tasks are part of the deal. Of course, they shouldn't be the only part of an internship.

As a prospective intern, you should have a plan from the get-go. "In the beginning, you have to work with your supervisor," says Chris Bedwick, director of the Center for Experiential Learning at King's College, Wilkes-Barre, PA. "It's best to sit down with him or her, agree upon goals, and get it in writing."

That was my first mistake. With nary a notion of exactly what I would be doing at the internship, I accepted the position. They could have had me smuggling bootleg copies of "The Hot Chick," and I'd have been stuck doing it.

"Initially, you should formulate good objectives and be aggressive enough to say that you want to see how this, this, and this works," says Bedwick. "You are the only one who can make or break your own internship. You have to be aggressive enough to ask for more work."

That's easy for her to say. But I know that the menial tasks assigned to me already took up the better part of my day, and they may take up your day, too. However, I was lucky. I did wind up doing more than menial tasks. Not much, but more. A few weeks into the internship, they asked me to work with the human-interest story talent assistants. (Making me a human-interest story talent assistant assistant.) And so a couple hours of my nine- to 10-hour days were spent scouring newspapers for possible human-interest guests. People will notice good work habits, but not always. The proactive approach is probably your best bet.

A Gopher's Tale
If all else fails, you have to slug through it. Even the most menial of internships offer opportunities. They may not be immediate, but they're there. For instance, I may feel that I didn't gain any real skills on my internship, but on my resume, it looks great. Without fail, whenever I go to a job interview or somebody sees my resume, where I interned becomes a focal point. People are impressed. They don't need to know that "Celebrity Relations Specialist" in my special skills section means that I got Bruce Willis sushi and a fruit basket for Salma Hayek. Hey, I had to cut that fruit, too.

Another opportunity offered on any internship is making contacts. Let's face it, in this world, it's not always what you know, but who you know that counts.

Take a lesson from my former roommate and fellow TV intern. From the beginning, Brad knew his purpose: Get through the tedious tasks, and make friends in the process. Through contacts he made at our internship, he was able to get a job on a TV sitcom shot in Los Angeles. Continuing his "make contacts" philosophy, Brad is now a sitcom writer. Of course, let's not discount his talent here, but talent only gets a person so far. All this opportunity arose from his time at a gopher internship.

Life Outside the Burrow
Maybe most of my hands-on experience was hands-on-some-cups-of-coffee. But, I gained something of greater importance -- knowledge and experience. And that is the point of an internship. You don't have to be a gopher, but you do have to remember that even a gopher learns something. So instead of burrowing yourself in a hole because you're an intern, take it for all it's worth and make it work for you.

Take it from me -- a "celebrity relations specialist."


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