‘Follow your dreams. Do what you love.’
"Then what am I doing here at this desk, in this drab office, completing menial tasks that I definitely don’t love? Is this really how I follow my dreams?”
Behold, the thought process that too many young adults go through as they complete an internship. Internships provide a unique opportunity - a chance to dabble in an interest or test the waters of a career. Often times though, these internships prove to be quite boring and leave one feeling more like a cheap laborer than an inspired worker. Internships are seen as a necessity to gain experience for the working world, but what are we really gaining?
My experience this summer in the i.Lab at UVa revealed to me the difference that a meaningful internship can make. The i.Lab is an incubator for entrepreneurs that encourages innovation and growth. It provides resources for early start-ups such as office space, free legal services, collaboration, and coaching in order to help them get on their feet and start making an impact.
I was part of the i.Lab’s 10-week summer accelerator as an intern for one of the accepted companies, VotersChoice - a political polling mobile app that connects government representatives with their constituents. Representatives send out polls, voters respond to them, and VotersChoice analyzes the data by demographics in real time for the representatives.
As an intern for VotersChoice, I spent most of my summer interviewing representatives and voters and compiling customer discovery research in order to begin a marketing strategy. As a member of the i.Lab’s summer program, I was challenged from day one. I attended two weeks of workshops on entrepreneurial-related topics, pitched for my venture, and received weekly mentoring. As a person, I grew tremendously.
I was the youngest i.Lab participant, and was working among interesting entrepreneurs from all walks of life. At the beginning of the i.Lab program, I was extremely uncomfortable. I had no entrepreneurial experience and felt unprepared and unknowledgeable compared to my fellow i.Labbers. I was nervous about attending the workshops because so much of it went over my head. I avoided talking to other people in the i.Lab for too long because I had no idea what was right or wrong to say. I dreaded the pitch night that loomed at the end of the summer, where I would have to stand in front of dozens of intelligent business people and speak the start-up language as if I was fluent.
But what kind of summer internship is that? Being constantly anxious and dreading the end instead of celebrating it was not who I am, and it is not the internship experience I intended for myself. I made a conscious decision to make the most of what was given to me, and the i.Lab had much to give. While the workshops that the i.Lab held were extremely informative and usually pretty interesting, that’s not where the real learning happened. The i.Lab pushed me out of my comfort zone, and once that happened, I learned that all the workshops in the world wouldn’t truly prepare me for the real world.
It was learning to adapt and evolve that was going to get me places. I overcame my feeling of insignificance by realizing that though I had little business experience, I had a lot of other great qualities to offer. I became good friends with several of the other i.Lab participants and started to look forward to coming into the i.Lab and doing work. I made my own pitch deck and wrote my own pitch with the help of my mentor and, at the end of the summer, I pitched for VotersChoice with lots of nerves but little dread. In the end, my time at the i.Lab taught me how to be confident outside of my comfort zone.
The i.Lab pushed me as an intern, but more importantly, it pushed me as a young woman. I learned that self-confidence is vital for surviving in any environment. Realizing that there are areas where I needed improvement, and learning to be okay with that, was something that would not have happened to me without my time at the i.Lab. An internship should do more than just look pretty on a resume; it should show you who you’d like, or not like, to be as you build a career. So while internships may be important for impressing employers, they shouldn’t suck out your soul. They should inspire and mold you into the person you hope to one day be.