Success by Default

By Denise Colaianni posted 10-30-2018 07:37

One day I was reading an article about how much more successful public health programs are when clients must opt out rather than opt in to program benefits.  A little light bulb went off in my head. What if my students had to out opt of doing “the right thing” rather than opt in?

I run an internship program for a health promotion and exercise sciences department at Western Connecticut State University. All our students are required to complete at 450-hour capstone experience in their senior year. I place and supervise 70+ students through this process every year. It sometimes feels like I’m more of a wrangler than an internship coordinator as I move the students from freshman year to completion of the internship. Then I had my ah-ha moment and things began to change. How can I set things up so that students automatically opt into behaviors that set them up for success?

With the cooperation of faculty and staff at the career center I began to put benchmarks in place.

Here are a few of them:  

  • To make students aware of the internship and excited about the potential opportunities it could present, they are required (in their freshman year!) to interview an alumnus about their experience. Students begin to anticipate their own internships and how their current courses can play a role in their future job prospects.
  • Each semester, students watch a 15 minute PowerPoint presentation that informs them about the internship requirements and potential internship opportunities. Videos showing interns working at sites demonstrate to students what they could be doing.
  • Frequently asked questions and answers are posted on sophomore- and junior-level Blackboard courses, so students always have a place to look for answers.
  • Students are given a course assignment to work with the career center in their junior year (a semester before they begin interviewing!) to create an interview-ready resume and cover letter. Students have access to online tools that help them realize their talents, pinpoint preferences, and discover opportunities through reflection and assessments.
  • Students know that they have met the prerequisites for the internship after meeting with academic advisers each semester and completing a detailed check list of required courses for the internship.
  • Each student goes on three internship interviews before accepting a position. This interview experience helps the student gain self-confidence in their abilities to move into the next phase of their career – the real world!
  • Each student signs a contract once an internship offer has been accepted. This contract documents that they are aware of the requirements of the average internship, including the possibility of a background check. This document also reinforces the serious commitment of an internship and states that if they change their mind after signing the contract they will not be allowed to do their internship that semester and will have to wait till the next academic year.  

So, what’s the goal of all these benchmarks? If all goes well the student has the correct academic requirements, a resume, and cover letter that is set to go, and a clear idea of what type of internship they want to do before he or she makes an appointment with me to begin the internship application process. Then they go on three interviews, get three offers, and make their first choice! That’s the best outcome we can hope for.

Of course, this doesn’t always work.  Each year a student shows up in my office and says, “I didn’t know I had to do an internship!” or “I had my mother review my resume and she says it’s good to go!”, or “I have a felony on my record”.  Or the worst-case scenario is a student goes on three interviews and is not offered a position. Then I do need to go back to square one and review all the requirements, find out what step might have been missed, and have the student make the necessary adjustments. Clearly, no one is happy when that happens, but is does and we make it work. My goal is for every student to be successful and I use these experiences to build additional benchmarks to help more students automatically opt into success.

There is a clear path for each student to be successful in their capstone experience that begins in their freshman year and continues to the last day of the internship.