Rebecca Ofri '21 is on the job with the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender this summer.
As a legal intern, she performs intake interviews for the office's mental health and drug court divisions, gathering facts from clients about their cases and walking them through what to expect in the arraignment process. It requires a sensitive hand to ensure clients feel heard at a stressful time, while also ensuring the lawyers Ofri works with have the facts they need to provide the strongest possible defense.
And in the age of COVID-19, all this hard work is happening through a screen.
For Ofri, a sociology major from Forest Hills, N.Y., who's on the pre-law track and also works as a pre-law intern for Bucknell's Center for Career Advancement, the experience is as real as can be and offers a valuable opportunity to prepare for law school after graduation.
Internships, virtual or otherwise, "are really important to help you get used to the day-to-day experiences of a job and immerse yourself in what you're interested in, to see if that's a lifestyle that you could imagine yourself living," she says.
Bucknell believes in the transformative power of those on-the-job experiences to help students explore their futures, and guides students through the process of finding and securing internships and externship job-shadowing opportunities as early as their first year of college.
When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted internship plans for many this summer, the University stepped forward with innovative solutions to help students pivot their plans and continue to gain valuable experience while maintaining social distance. That included helping students whose internships were canceled find new ones, remotely continuing programming that supports internships and networking and offering advice to help students prepare for the idiosyncrasies of remote work.
An Inside View of an Industry in Transition
Like Ofri, political science major Bess Murad '21 is working in the legal arena with support from the Bucknell Public Interest Program (BPIP), which provides a stipend for students who pursue an unpaid internship in the nonprofit or public service sector. The University has continued the program despite the switch to virtual internships for many students.
Murad, who's working with the Brooklyn Volunteer Lawyers Project to provide free civil legal services to low-income Brooklyn, N.Y., residents, notes that her internship is still as real as can be because her entire organization has been working remotely amid quarantine restrictions. Watching that shift has given her an even more comprehensive view of how the organization operates than she expected from an in-person experience, she says.
"A lot of our clients are below the poverty line, and most don't have access to technology, so it's been kind of a tough transition for the organization. On top of learning how to do an internship remotely, we're trying to figure out how the organization can work that way," says Murad, who is from Jamesville, N.Y. "Watching the industry adapt is a unique experience that no one else has gotten before. As I'm learning about the industry, the attorneys I work with are learning about it at the same time. I feel really immersed in what's going on right now in the industry that I want to go into."
Getting Ready for the New Normal
To help students prepare and make the most experiences like these, Bucknell's Center for Career Advancement hosted a series of "fireside" training sessions tailored to the particularities of a virtual internship. The advice the center offered went beyond how professional etiquette translates to Zoom calls (dress business casual — collared shirts , not T-shirts — even if the boss dresses down) to the soft skills that can help students leave the internship with meaningful experience, a good recommendation and, ideally, an invitation to return in person soon.
"Networking used to be 'let's grab coffee' — that's not happening now, but students can create and must seek out casual opportunities for relationship building," says Kathe Kennedy, senior assistant director and finance specialist for the center. "We advise them to do their homework on the team and division they work with to learn how people communicate, what important meetings they should attend, and the written and unwritten rules of the workplace — all of this is key to getting a return offer."
Students who opted to earn course credit for their internship, meanwhile, met regularly with Missy Gutkowski, director of the Center for Experiential Learning in the Freeman College of Management, for professional development guidance about their internship, while also attending a virtual alumni speaker series and networking events to gain insight into other fields and organizations. The course was open to students of all majors.
"Taking the course in tandem with my internship has pushed me further and makes sure I'm staying on top of things," says Tara Lahey '22, a finance major from Ridgewood, N.J. Lahey is interning with the investor-relations division of digital marketing and public relations firm Koch Communications, which is owned by Bucknell alumnus Richard Koch '69. "It kind of keeps you on a structured path, while also really tailoring the experience for what you want to achieve," she says.
Lahey also credits Bucknell and its deep alumni network for helping her pivot her summer plans. She had hoped to take part this summer in the Freeman College's Bucknell in Dublin program, which pairs a course in Irish literature with an internship in the field of a student's choosing. When that program was canceled due to travel restrictions, Lahey knew she "couldn't go back like babysitting or do your traditional summer job," so she began exploring how Bucknell could help.
"I found this internship on [the Center for Career Advancement's online job and internship board]," she says. "They had listings from a lot of Bucknell alumni specifically who reached out to work with Bucknell students whose plans for the summer had been impacted by COVID. My internship host directly offered this just to Bucknell students. It definitely came together at the last minute, but it was so amazing that he took the time to organize this for us, and for all the students whose plans were canceled or changed in some way."
Eye on the Now
As Bucknell has adapted to provide continuity for students amid challenges, some internship experiences have even shifted to focus on learning from the pandemic itself.
Ben Travis '22, a cell biology/biochemistry major from Wayland, Mass., had planned to spend his BPIP internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston on the delivery floor, collecting blood samples from umbilical cords of newborns as part of a study to see how lactic acid levels in the blood correlate with a baby's health. Visitor restrictions at the hospital meant that project was out, but Travis and his internship adviser, the hospitals' chief of gynecology, have instead turned to a new study of how the pandemic is interacting with socioeconomics and patient care.
"We'll be investigating whether patients from certain races and locations of residence stay longer in the hospital after giving birth, or if they want to get out of there immediately since hospitals have become such hotspots," Travis explains. "The work is evolving quickly, and our first project will be getting it approved by the institutional review board at the hospital so I can begin calling recent mothers to collect the data we will use to further investigate.
"I'm excited about it," adds Travis, who is planning to attend medical school after Bucknell. "I think it will be very valuable for me to see the standard of work that goes on in a hospital research lab. After med school, I'll be doing research one-on-one with patients, so this is an aspect of the career that I'm really interested in experiencing, even if it's virtual."