Internships in impact-driven education

For impact-driven education, integrating real-world experiences that prepare students, not only for their future careers, but also to contribute meaningfully to societal change, is important. Internships stand out as a powerful, yet perhaps underutilized, tool in this endeavor since they can offer an effective pathway in embedding impact-driven learning within curricula. 

This factsheet aims to guide educators, program managers, and learning innovators in using internships to foster crucial skills  for students aspiring to create positive societal change. Internships could offer a flexible and effective pathway in embedding impact-driven learning within curricula, achieving impact driven educational goals.

Why are Impactful Internships Important?

Internships traditionally serve multiple objectives: providing insights into the professional world, helping students apply theoretical knowledge in practical settings, and assisting in the exploration of various professional identities. These experiences are invaluable, offering students a firsthand look at workplace dynamics, ethical considerations, and the societal contributions (or detriments) of organizations. Such exposure is foundational to impact-driven education, even if the internship does not directly address societal issues When we put a societal focus on internships, inviting students to think about how their work can have a positive impact in the organization they are working with (and their target group) and in their own personal and professional development, this learning experience becomes even more meaningful and rich. 

How to Leverage Internships for Impact-Driven Education?

Simple Step to Create Positive Impact: Focusing on Reflection

The simplest approach to leverage internships for impact-driven education involves minimal adjustments to existing structures. Focusing on increasing their students’ "impact capacity", educators can enrich the internship experience by encouraging students to engage in deep reflection on their experiences. They could be guided by questions designed to explore their interests, values, knowledge and skills for creating positive societal impact (as outlined in here). These questions can be explored through a reflection journal, a series of individual assessment or in groups during class or tutorial sessions. 

Steps Towards Complexity: Reflecting with Tutors and Host Organization

For those ready to delve deeper, organizing guided intervision meetings between students and a tutor represents a more intricate strategy. These sessions, focusing on the reflective questions related to impact capacity and goals, offer richer, collective insights, and foster a deeper understanding of the societal implications of professional work. An ideal number of intervision sessions is three: 

  • One at the beginning of the process, focusing on first impressions and internship planning.
  • One midway through the process, to assess progress, identify and implement improvements.
  • A final session to reflect on the process and identify lessons learned.

Another possibility is requiring students to present their findings and reflections to their host organization, highlighting insights gained from their academic journey and posing critical questions that may inspire organizational introspection or change.

Embracing Authentic Societal Challenges during Internships: 

Building on the foundational step of enhancing internships through reflective practices, we now explore a more complex dimension: internships centered on authentic societal urgencies. Engaging in these internships with organizations committed to social good can significantly amplify learning opportunities. By working on real-world problems with experienced professionals, interns gain invaluable insights into both the rewards and challenges of societal engagement. Consider, for example, energy transition, social entrepreneurs, and neighborhood teams. Or think about HR departments where there is attention to inclusion.

Navigating Settings that are not Directly Aligned with Societal Urgencies.

However, navigating an internship that targets specific societal challenges in settings not directly aligned with such goals presents its own set of challenges. Effective mentorship in these contexts demands a considerable commitment of time and resources from the organization. Without a direct link between the intern's project and the company's priorities, securing an internship becomes more complex.

To create a mutually beneficial relationship between companies and interns focused on societal urgencies, it's crucial to align the intern's project with the company's broader objectives or challenges, ensuring both parties gain value. To facilitate this alignment, students or internship coordinators should adopt a strategic approach in identifying and crafting these opportunities:

  • Research and Understand Company Goals: Begin with thorough research into potential host companies to understand their mission, values, strategic goals, and current initiatives, especially those related to societal urgencies. This can involve reviewing company websites, industry reports, and recent news articles.
  • Identify Societal Urgencies Relevant to the Company: Based on the research, pinpoint societal urgencies that align with the company’s sector and goals. For instance, a tech company may be interested in digital inclusivity, while a food manufacturer might focus on sustainable sourcing practices.
  • Develop a Proposal: With an understanding of both the company's objectives and relevant societal issues, craft a detailed proposal for an internship project. This proposal should outline how the intern’s work will address a societal urgency while contributing to the company's broader goals. Be specific about the expected outcomes, potential benefits for the company, and how the project fits into the intern’s academic and career aspirations.
  • Highlight Mutual Benefits: Clearly articulate the mutual benefits in the proposal. For the company, this could include enhanced brand reputation, access to innovative ideas, or insights into new market opportunities. For the intern, emphasize the practical experience, skills development, and the opportunity to make a tangible impact on society.
  • Engage with Decision-Makers: Once the proposal is ready, internship coordinators or students should reach out to relevant contacts within the company. This could be through existing networks, LinkedIn connections, or direct outreach to the company's HR or CSR departments. It's important to communicate the value proposition clearly and concisely to capture the interest of decision-makers.
  • Prepare for Negotiation: Be ready to discuss and possibly adapt the proposal based on feedback from the company. Flexibility and a willingness to tailor the project to better fit the company's needs and capacities are key to securing the internship opportunity.

Within a bachelor's program, teachers or internship coordinators are more often responsible for ensuring these alignments, given their broader perspective on the industry and the academic curriculum. 

In the context of internships focused on societal urgencies, special attention should be given to crafting deliverables that also offer distinctive value to the company. 

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