‘Planned happenstance’: College students make summer plans under extreme circumstances

Pandemic summer requires pivoting and flexibility

"Working from home during Corona Virus on coffee table with laptop" by microbizmag is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Years from now, when today’s college students are entering the workforce, interviewers will likely ask about what they did during the tumultuous summer of 2020. 

Students who were sent home from campuses in March and watched as their internships were canceled and the job market collapsed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, will probably need to have an answer ready for that question. Not that the answer needs to be a traditional internship, but an answer that shows how they reacted when the world got flipped upside down. 

Maybe the answer will be that the student took to the streets to protest against racial injustice, maybe they found a virtual internship or took an online class. 

“Our students won’t be the only students challenged by this across the country. Employers will understand this, they are the ones cancelling internship programs and recognize it,” says Rebekah Paré, executive director of SuccessWorks at UW-Madison. “We see some real empathy for students. Down the road, everyone will understand we had a global pandemic that prevented students from doing things they could’ve done.”

“The question is going to be,” she added. “So what did you do to move your career forward?” Her goal, Paré says, is to make sure students have “a fantastic answer to that question.” 

SuccessWorks is trying to help students by connecting them with career development tools such as resume-writing advice or connecting students to the larger alumni network. 

Typically students don’t use the school’s career services during the summer because they’re busy with internships, study abroad programs, classes or summer jobs. With most of those canceled or altered, the school is trying to fill the gaps, according to Paré. 

It’s essential, she says, that students not try to go it alone. The resources are there for a reason. 

“We see with our students sometimes this tendency to try to figure out everything for themselves,” she says. “We’re trying to emphasize that this is not the time to do it alone. That’s not how professionals function, the network is incredibly important. It’s better for students to be taking the summer to get help.” 

Micro internships

The UW-Madison is working on connecting students with alumni and is seeing an increase in online summer enrollment, but one way the school is helping students gain direct experience is through a micro-internship program. 

The program is a partnership with Parker Dewey, a career development firm, that connects students with companies to do one-off projects that would typically be done by more traditional interns. 

The micro-internships are paid and allow the student to get hands-on experience. The Parker Dewey website advertises programs in creating social media content, data cleanup and writing blog posts. 

“If you’re an organization and you have canceled your internship program, you likely still have all that work to get done,” says Paré. “Are there ways you can bundle it? What’s nice is the projects are short term, they’re paid and employers pay for these projects and they’re not also super expensive for them.”

Flexibility and ‘planned happenstance’

For the students themselves, this year has been an exercise in extreme flexibility. 

Daniel Ledin, a junior political science major at UW-Madison, saw most of the internships he’d applied to get canceled this spring. After months of searching, he found an unpaid internship working on the campaign of State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski.

Work from Home
Daniel Ledin’s work from home station. (Daniel Ledin)

“I guess everything happens for a reason,” Ledin, a Middleton native, says. “It’s tough to say with so many bad things happening around the world. I consider myself very lucky to have found something.” 

Heading into her senior year, Mahima Bhattar started applying to internships in January — and landed one. But in April, the program was canceled, putting the Naperville, Ill. resident back at square one — now four months behind and entering a radically different climate. 

“The end of April is a really weird time to start looking for internships,” Bhattar, a sociology and economics double major at UW-Madison, says. “I was set back by four months. All these emails I was ignoring because I had an internship already. I was stressed out because I was now back in the cycle but I was late to the game.”

Because she’d been hired in February, Bhattar spent two months ignoring emails from her academic advisers that were advertising internships, so her solution was to check in with a previous internship to see if they had anything available. 

That previous internship had an opening, so now she’s working as a remote intern for Health Access Connect, an organization co-founded by a UW-Madison graduate that aims to bring health services to people living in rural Uganda. 

Both Ledin and Bhattar say they feel lucky to have found something this summer, even if they got there in a roundabout way. 

Ledin, who ultimately wants to work for the U.S. Department of State says he knows domestic politics isn’t exactly the path to foreign policy, but it shows he was willing to step outside his comfort zone and learn new skills. 

Bhattar, who says she wants to work in public health, is upset about losing what she called her dream internship in Chicago, but the job she has now combines health with data analytics — exactly what she wants to do. 

The lesson, Ledin says, is to let everything shake out and figure out the best way forward from there. 

“Planned happenstance,” he says. “Being flexible and accommodating to take advantage of opportunities that fall to your feet. Instead of taking a linear track, if a new door opens up, take it and see where it goes.”

Even though she landed on her feet, Bhattar still grapples with how the pandemic has uprooted people’s lives. 

“This comes up everywhere now, I could not have factored in how weird the feeling of uncertainty was,” she says. “Nothing you sign up for right now, nothing you plan for feels certain anymore. That’s a really weird place to be in.”