Exploring Student Perspectives on College Internships: Implications for Equitable and Responsive Program Design

WCER Working Paper No. 2019-5

Matthew T. Hora, Emily Parrott, and Pa Her


July 2019, 31 pp.

ABSTRACT: Internships are a widely touted co-curricular activity that may enhance students’ employability, their future wages, and employer talent needs. However, how students themselves understand and conceptualize the internship experience is poorly understood. Reasons why understanding students’ perceptions of internships is important include the fact that debates about employability are dominated by employer voices and interests, and that developing student-centered educational experiences require a deep understanding of their conceptions of the learning and developmental process itself. In this paper we adopt an ethnographic perspective to reposition the perspectives of students from the periphery to the center within discussions of employability and internships, and use the freelisting method to document the words or phrases that are most salient to students (n=57) as they consider the cultural domain of “internships.” We analyzed the resulting data using saliency analysis, inductive thematic analysis, and techniques from social network analysis to document the most frequently and psychologically salient reported terms associated with internships, themes related to these terms, and differences between students who have and who have not taken an internship. Results indicate that the most salient terms in the cultural domain of internships were: “experience,” “learning,” “paid,” and “connections.” Students discussed these words in utilitarian terms (e.g., something to “get” for one’s résumé), as important aspects of career- and self-exploration, and to highlight the importance of compensation. Differences in the complexity of student accounts were evident between students who had taken an internship and those who had not. These findings highlight how common definitions of internships reflect a homogenous and aspirational perspective that is inconsistent with student accounts. We conclude that students’ insights about internships are important to consider to reframe the employability debate to include student interests, to avoid one-size-fits-all approaches to internship design, and to facilitate student self-reflection.

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keywords: internships, higher education, skills, college students, cognitive anthropology, student voice, instructional design