If your campus is anything like mine, there has been an increasing emphasis on students completing internships during their time in college or university. A decade or two ago, students completing one internship were ahead of many of their peers, while today, many students are completing multiple internships. At my institution, there has been increasing institutional support for students in helping them locate internships, as well as greater institutional supervision of what happens within these experiences. Educational institutions often see internships as a way to make connections with businesses in the community, and students see internships as a way to get “real world” experience and possible entrees into employment. There can be different purposes for internship experiences–in some fields, internships may focus on the learning of particular skills, while in others, students may obtain broader exposure to what happens within an organization. The reality is that internships are more important than ever in the educational process and for job market placements. How do we as faculty address this issue and approach it from a Christian perspective?
I have supervised internships for students in the summer for almost 20 years. As an economist supervising mostly business majors, I am at a disadvantage in knowing whether students are learning important aspects of marketing, finance, supply chain management, or other specific business topics in their internship. At the same time, I am working with students who are geographically dispersed, sometimes around the entire globe. Most of the students that I have worked with have been juniors and seniors, and they often see the internship experience as an opportunity to learn more about a future career. Given these constraints, I decided early on that I would design my summer internship course to focus on the ideas of vocation and calling. Somewhat surprisingly, these summer courses have proven to be some of my most rewarding teaching experiences, and from student feedback, they have also proven to be meaningful for the students.
When I talk to students about taking the summer course, which at Hope College is titled “Internships in Vocation,” I make the case for the course as follows: “When during your work life will you ever have the chance to reflect on work and what you would like to do with it? When will you have a chance to think about your vocation and calling while you are actually in a work environment?” I note that when people get into a career and have a family, it is often very hard to take the time to do such reflection, and that before you start your career is a perfect time to be doing this kind of thinking.
In terms of course design, a large part of the student requirements consists of a weekly journaling component. Students write two to three pages about what is happening in their internships and their reflections on it. I provide timely feedback, usually within a day or two. The journaling process serves as a summer-long conversation about issues regarding calling and vocation. I can ask questions of them, and they can ask questions of me. I also provide a document with a substantial list of journal prompts should they start to run out of ideas. I emphasize that they should be writing about things that are helpful to them and the big questions they are facing in their lives, as well as more mundane questions like how to conduct themselves in the work environment. In these conversations, students often express a great deal of uncertainty about their futures. They believe that other students they know have everything figured out and feel worried and anxious about the future and how they might determine “what they are supposed to do.”
Other course requirements include an initial paper where they outline their goals and hopes for the summer experience, as well as their current understanding about the ideas of calling and vocation and what it means for them. Students also need to conduct extended interviews of at least two other people where they discuss issues concerning work and calling and write up their commentary and responses to the interview. In addition, they complete a book review on Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.’s book Engaging God’s World, a work that includes a significant chapter on the idea of vocation as well as a careful explication of a Christian worldview. Students also need to complete a movie review where they reflect on calling and vocation as it is expressed in the film, and students are required to complete a second book review on a book they choose in consultation with me. The final assignment for the course is a seven-page paper in which they reflect on their entire summer experience.
Student feedback about their experience in this course has been encouraging. Although I always take positive student notes that are sent to me with a grain of salt, students’ reactions to their time of reflection seem to go beyond just saying, “Hey professor, you did a good job.” Below are a few quotes from students in their evaluations of the course or their writing along the way—all of these are from one summer’s worth of internships (and are used with their permission).
“Wow, I cannot believe this is the conclusion to a summer’s work and my first internship. This has been one of the best and most educational experiences in my life. From reflecting on my everyday interactions via journal entries to conducting interviews with my colleagues, I have gained a better understanding about vocation and how I see work fitting into my future. Thank you for constantly challenging me throughout this course and forcing me to dig deeper. I learned a great deal about myself that I didn’t know existed and am grateful for our journey together.”
“Throughout this course I have learned many things. I have learned new aspects about myself and how I function in my current work setting. I also learned much about vocation and calling and how they are related. Along with that I learned about my calling as a Christian and how this should affect my vocational choices. Lastly, I learned a lot about what I should and want to do with my last two years of college. This includes internship and vocational opportunities as well aspects of myself I should focus more on.”
“With my internship experience, I have learned about transition, calling, vocation, and myself. I cannot describe in enough words what I have taken from this summer other than I am extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity for such change to happen. We must have the courage to change if we do not love the path we are on; that goes for anything. Whatever it is that I bring to the table, I hope to use that in wherever this next stage of life brings me to.”
As you might imagine, words like these are very encouraging to me in my calling as a professor who works with students and longs to see them grow. One thing I have found while working with my summer interns is that I get to know more about them than just about any of my other students (even though we rarely meet face to face). In some ways, I stumbled onto the focus of vocation and calling in my internship classes. While there are many ways to supervise internships, I believe that engaging students in a conversation about vocation and calling while they are actually working is a way that we can ensure that Christ animates their learning experience while they have an internship.