Why Interns Are Important

Colleagues mentored me and now I’m doing it for the next generation of colleagues. It’s called passing it on.

Possibly the most famous intern ever, Monica Lewinsky, turns 40 next week, on July 23.

To understate the case, her internship at the White House didn't lead to a permanent job offer or career in government service. Today, the woman best known for her stained, navy-blue dress from the Gap, turns up occasionally at parties in Los Angeles, New York and London, but generally avoids the spotlight. (To her credit, she did earn a masters degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics back in 2006.)

She's not the only intern in the news. There's also the unnamed Cornell student interning at the Federal Aviation Administration, who was fired after giving a San Francisco TV station the OK for its anchor to read off a list of fake, pun-laden, Asian-sounding names as belonging to the Asiana Airlines flight crew on a plane involved in a fatal crash landing a week ago. There are also the two interns who recently won a court case against 20th Century Fox for not paying them during internships spent working during production of the movie, "Black Swan." And don't forget Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn's portrayals of forty-something interns, battling it out against whippersnapper rivals for coveted permanent jobs at Google in "The Internship," a movie comedy that came out earlier this summer.

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All of which got me thinking about interns and internships. I want to make my position clear: I'm in favor of both.

Internships let you test run a possible career. It certainly worked that way for me. I enjoyed the internships I had as a writer at my hometown newspaper (in high school) and at a New York trade magazine (in college). I was less enthusiastic about an internship spent working as an assistant in a congressional office on Capitol Hill (also in college).

At the newspaper and the magazine, I reported on and wrote about a topic and, bam, the story was in print the next day or week. In the congressional office, where I helped research legislation and constituent concerns, the connection between action and results was far less apparent or satisfying. Long story short: I became a journalist.

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I should hasten to add that I always was paid for interning. Working for free is a luxury only rich kids can afford. If you're going to do real work, you should be paid real money for it, even if the wages are on the very low end of the scale.

When I was an intern, more experienced colleagues took me under their wing, showed me the ropes, gently corrected my mistakes and provided role models. (One also introduced me to my first martini.) They were mentors, and I'm grateful to each and every one of them.

Later, some of these same mentors would provide me with jobs, as did fellow interns some years down the road when they themselves had moved into hiring positions. Apparently, all those years before, I'd been networking. I just didn't know it.

In the three decades since, I've seen my share of interns come and go at various jobs that I've held. Some have been winners and one even became my boss two decades later. And some should have had their picture next to the definition of "slacker" in the dictionary.

I served as a mentor to several of them, advising them on how and where to look for jobs when they graduated, how to navigate tricky issues with superiors and ask for raises early in their careers, and how to figure out what they really wanted and then go after it.

That's what you do. It's part of one generation helping the next. Colleagues did it for me and now I'm doing it for the next generation (or two or three) of colleagues. It's called passing it on.

I know that my help to them is invaluable. That's because the very first question that I ask any new intern upon meeting him or her is: "Has anyone yet told you where the bathroom is located?"

When I had my own first internship in Manhattan, I was too shy on my first day to ask where the john was located in the sprawling corporate office. To put it delicately, I held it for the entire day (lunch at a nearby restaurant made this doable). The next day, I asked the office manager where the bathroom was. She waved airily at a nearby hallway. I went down the hallway and into the first door marked with a ladies room pictograph. It contained only sinks! So I made sure to go out for lunch and then waited until I got home that day, too.

By the third day, I knew that my kidneys and long-term health couldn't take it. I asked the office manager again about the loo and this time she actually guided me to a door farther down the hallway from the room with just sinks. It opened onto a gleaming, fully equipped, multiple stalls restroom. Ah, the relief.

I always tell new interns this story. The intended takeaway: There's no question too embarrassing to ask when you're an intern. How else will you learn?

Then I walk them over to the nearest restroom so that they can get their internship off to a comfortable start.

Tags: career

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