Finding and Succeeding at an Internship
This entry is part of the Intern Chronicles Series, written by students interning at federal agencies who are interested in sharing their experiences with others. Colleen, from Seattle, Washington, spent her summer at the Office of Adolescent Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Colleen describes how her search for a meaningful internship led to this position and reaffirmed her passion for sexual health and social justice.
Finding a Great Internship
My name is Colleen, and I am from Seattle, Washington. This past year, I began my undergraduate degree at the College of William & Mary. Before my freshman year of college even began, I knew I wanted to be working the summer after it ended. I did not want to continue working at a pet supply store, either. I wanted to find meaningful work that would help prepare me for my future career. I am a public health major, and I have a passion for sexual and reproductive health and rights. I wanted to work somewhere that would allow me to learn and contribute to the field I am passionate about. I had ideas of a few possible places, but I wanted to discover what internships were available, and find one that would be a good fit for me.
So, like most of my generation, when I wanted information, I turned to that magical place where it’s all at: Google. Really, if you are looking for an internship: Google it. Search for “’subject area of interest’ internships” and try different phrasing and words. Search your college’s career center website. Search other colleges’ career center websites. There are so many amazing opportunities just waiting to be found by taking some time to comb through Google search results.
The internship program I found that held the most interest for me was with the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. I had never heard of OAH before, but it lined up perfectly with my interests. OAH focuses on teen pregnancy prevention, sexual health education, positive youth development, working to address the needs of expectant and parenting teens, and other issues, all from a public health perspective.
I was thrilled at the prospect of an internship at OAH. But I knew applying for internships is similar to applying for colleges: you need to apply to more than one, then select from the offers you (hopefully) get. I made a spreadsheet of all of the possible internships I could apply for, and organized it by ranking which internships held the most interest for me and when the applications were due, so I could prioritize my application process and make sure they were all submitted on time.
Early on, I asked my favorite professor, my manager from my high-school job, and my advisor from my favorite extracurricular activity if they would write recommendations for me. From there, it was a matter of crafting cover letters and résumés for each application. And then waiting, which was the hardest part.
Thankfully, I was offered a position, and I am incredibly grateful to the have the opportunity to work with the amazing staff at the Office of Adolescent Health. This summer I have been working on a variety of key projects, including enhancing the office’s work on LGBTQ inclusivity and assisting the office in developing guidelines to help grantees comply with OAH requirements. I am excited to share my experiences with you though the Intern Chronicles series!
Networking Through an Internship
My internship with the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) has been incredible so far. I honestly expected that a fair portion of my internship would involve fetching coffee, making copies, and answering phones. But I have been pleasantly surprised, as I am working on projects that are meaningful to the office and that challenge me.
One of the most exciting opportunities I have had this summer was attending the 2014 HHS Teen Pregnancy Prevention Grantee Conference, “Bridging the Gaps: Eliminating Disparities in Teen Pregnancy and Sexual Health.” This conference was sponsored by several HHS agencies. The grantees of these organizations gather in Washington, DC for a three-day conference to discuss the amazing work they are doing, share ideas, and learn about various aspects of teen pregnancy prevention and teen sexual health.
The conference was an incredible learning opportunity. I was able to attend sessions on the LGBTQ community, social justice, sexual health disparities, social determinants of health, motivational interviewing, engaging students with diverse learning styles, and long-acting reversible contraceptives, among many others.
This year, there were nearly 1,000 attendees, and I had the opportunity to meet hundreds of people who share my interest in sexual and reproductive health. I am shy and networking is outside my comfort zone, but I went prepared. Since I knew I would meet many people that I would want to keep in touch with, I made business cards with my contact information to hand out. I used Google to shop around online for a good deal.
At the conference, I tried to initiate conversations with as many people as possible. You never know if someone is working on an interesting project or has some great insight into the field. And people love to talk. To initiate a conversation, I asked (genuine) questions. If you give people a chance to talk about their work and what they love, they’ll probably be willing to chat with you, and you can learn from what they share.
At conferences and similar events, if you encounter someone whose work you admire and who you want to meet, go up and introduce yourself! Try and keep the fawning to a minimum, but tell them why you admire them, and conversation will often flow from there. If you are too nervous to introduce yourself, ask someone else, like your supervisor or a coworker, to make the introduction. When I met interesting people that I would like to talk to again, I gave them my business card, and asked if I could have theirs. After the conference, I followed up with the people I met through email.
This conference was an incredible opportunity to meet people who are interesting and who are doing fascinating work in the sexual health field. When I get back to school, I will be collaborating with someone I met at conference on a project he is working on in my area. Stepping outside my comfort zone was definitely worth it.
Learning and Growing from a Successful Internship
As my internship draws to a close, I am thankful for the opportunities that have been given to me. My internship with the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) has been eye-opening. I am unsure how these past three months have passed so quickly. I have been fortunate to have had an experience that was challenging, exciting, fun, and will inform my decisions around my academic and career paths.
This internship has reaffirmed my passion for sexual health and social justice. Before interning with OAH, I was concerned that I would not be able to translate my passion into a career that utilized my strengths and capabilities. One of the greatest things I have learned this summer is that there is a huge range of job-types in this field. Outside of government work, advocacy, medicine, and education, there are political analysts, statisticians, grant writers, program directors, experimental researchers, and so much more. Perspective into all the possible careers and organizations working within the field of sexual health has been the most valuable thing that I have gained.
One of the hardest things I have encountered in my internship is working for eight consecutive hours. To try finding my flow, I applied strategy called a “Flow Test”, which was created by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago. I set alarms for several random times throughout the week. Each time the alarm went off, I wrote down what I was doing, where I was, and whether I was “in the zone” or not. At the end of the week, I reflected on my notes to try and discover in what circumstances I work best, and how to optimize those. This strategy is useful because it allows me to plan my work throughout the day in a way that I am most productive.
To keep track of all the new ideas, resources, organizations in the field, and potential careers that I learned about, I created a word document which I add to daily. I have organized it into categories, including a category for things I want to research and learn more about and sections on skills I am learning. I want to make sure I do not lose any of the valuable information I have been exposed to in my internship.
Internships are wonderful because they give the intern perspective into the specific organization they are working with. Every intern should ask themselves “Can I see myself working here permanently? What do I like about this organization? What qualities are missing from this organization that I want to find in an employer?”
OAH is a marvelous office to intern for. They work hard to assure that their interns are working on meaningful projects, and to connect interns with countless opportunities for exploration and growth. I attended our annual conference, expert panels, webinars, steering committee meetings on violence against women, and much more.
It has been an incredible experience. But I am unsure whether government work is best suited for me. In working in government, it is crucial to stay as politically-neutral as possible. Government agencies need support from all sides. I am opinionated and very vocal about my beliefs. I want my work to take a strong and clear stand for what I believe is right. While I have valued my time interning for the government, I have to consider whether I might be better-suited to work in an environment where I can express my personal opinions and beliefs through my work.
Now that I have a better understanding of the wide array of work done in the sexual field, and I have a better understanding of what I want in a work environment, I can begin to contemplate where I fit best in this field—where I would be happiest, and where my skills would be best utilized. This is something I will be reflecting on for the next few months as school begins again. Regardless of the direction my career takes, I know that I have thoroughly enjoyed this experience, and that my internship with OAH will help forge my path towards an enjoyable and successful career.
I would like to give a huge thank you to the OAH staff for welcoming me and giving me this incredible opportunity. They supported me and truly made this experience unforgettable.