Liberal arts and the career-ready student

Wheaton College dedicates nearly $1.2 million annually to support student research, travel and internships. It’s an investment in creating possibility for our students.

by Lisa Gavigan ’83 P’18
Director, Career Services
Filene Center for Academic Advising & Career Services

The word ‘internship’ has taken on a somewhat generic meaning – an office role assisting a professional over the summer months. But here at Wheaton, an internship is anything but generic. A stroll through this year’s Internship Showcase tells a rich story. Dalton Adams ‘21 spent his summer at the Villa Del Vergigno Archaeological Site and Field School excavating the ancient furnaces of an old Roman villa. In Cleveland, Ohio, Zainab Ayinde ’20, who plans to further her education in the field of dentistry, assisted with extractions, fillings and exams at the non-profit, Circle Health Services, and Blake Ferretti ’20 parlayed the skills she learned through her social media internship into a full-time job!

Surveyed in their senior year, our graduates tell us that 85% have participated in at least one internship while at Wheaton, and 40% have had 2 or more summer learning experiences. You might be wondering how your student should go about identifying and securing a summer internship. Although there is no one way to approach the search, one thing is for certain, starting early is key!

Most Wheaton students begin their career planning each fall with a visit to Career Services. They start by reflecting on their academic path and how that connects with the work they would like to do, or perhaps social or economic problems they would like to solve. They are asked to consider the industries, company size and culture, for-profit or non-profit missions and locations that are right for them. As the search narrows, students reach out to alumni, faculty and their circle of family and friends to learn more about their choices, using the winter break to visit organizations and inquire about summer opportunities or to do informational interviews. With their resumes updated and a more finely-tuned list of potential internship sites, students will spend the spring months applying for positions. Advisors in Career Services help student to navigate job posting sites like LinkedIn,, and our own Handshake job posting platform, which to date boasts more than 4,000 internships and jobs posted by 3,000+ employers.

Not All Summer Experiences Are Advertised

We also encourage students to create their own internship opportunities when they cannot find an existing one to fit their interests. Volunteer roles are often available through research programs and organizations; including charities, local non-profits, and community groups. Town and state level offices offer a host of opportunities, from learning about residential real estate and tax structure while interning at a tax assessor office to piecing together a prominent family’s history through journal writings and correspondence at one’s local historical association. Some students have returned to their own towns choosing to work with their high school guidance counselors, fire departments or town libraries.

Soft Skills Are Now Considered Workplace Competencies

As is the case for many Wheaton students, these internships are but part of a list of real-world experiences. Dalton, Zainab and Blake have undertaken to build the skills required for post-graduate success. You might be asking yourself, “What are the skills today’s college graduates need to be successful?” According to the more than 4,000 employers that the National Association of Colleges and Employers annually surveyed, these skills include: Critical Thinking/Problem Solving, Oral/Written Communications, Teamwork/Collaboration, Digital Technology, Global/Intercultural Fluency, Leadership, and Professionalism/Work Ethic. A deep knowledge of a discipline or body of work (e.g. International Relations, Chemistry, Visual Art, etc.), complemented by these eight career competencies, provides students with a head-start to success.

Although development of workplace competencies provides students with an edge in a competitive job market, development of industry-specific skills gives them an even sharper edge. Biochemistry major Robert Black ’21, worked in a lab at Enable Life Sciences. There he was able to sharpen existing lab skills and be exposed to several new ones. “During my time at the internship I was exposed to new synthetic techniques. We used a Schlenk line, a manifold with several ports that allow for the introduction or removal of specific gases, to synthesize polymers that we coated onto the stents. The method of synthesis was new to me in two ways, first I had never used a Schlenk line, and second I had never synthesized polymers before. Aside from synthetic techniques, I was also introduced to new analytical methods. One of which being a scanning electron microscope (SEM) which allowed us to visualize the polymer coating on the stents.” In the ever-changing and highly competitive STEM fields, exposure to new equipment and technology is crucial.

Exploring Career Paths

In addition to these “success skills”, there are many benefits to participating in a summer experience. Students are able to explore potential career paths—to gain a better understanding of a particular industry—it’s hiring trends, challenges and demands. Emily Babb ’20 spent last summer as the social media and general business intern at The Ruth Group, NYC, a strategic investor and public relations counsel to healthcare companies across the country and around the globe.

While Emily values the hard skills she gained through the experience, the more important lesson was in realizing that she did not want to pursue a career in this particular industry. Even better, she was able to identify a new area of interest. “The Ruth Group internship made me realize that I prefer creating and managing social media content for companies who are marketing to consumers rather than investors in the MedTech and biotech space. More importantly, the internship made me realize that I would enjoy a creative outlet in my career.”

Balancing the Need to Work and Build Experience

Wheaton annually funds student participation in non-paid internships, but students who begin planning early can often secure well-paid summer experiences. Each year, Wheaton STEM students successfully compete for REUs, Research Experiences for Undergraduates. Funded by the National Science Foundation, a group of about 10 undergraduates will work with faculty and other researchers on a specific research project at a host site. Students receive stipends between $3,000 and $6,000 and in some cases, assistance with housing and travel. Many financial institution and for-profit companies also offer well-paid summer internships where students can work with teams of marketing professionals, media experts or learn about the expanding world of human resources. In 2019, the average hourly rate for interns was $19.05, the highest hourly wage thus far for interns.

Building Professional Connections

It’s important that students are prepared to make the most of their summer opportunities. This of course includes demonstrating a willingness to learn and a good work ethic. But students should also be prepared to utilize the resources around them, and that includes the professionals at their internship sites.

Will Gan ’21, was part of Columbia University and Northeast Regional Alliance (NERA) MedPrep Scholar’s Program where he took academic enrichment courses in Biochemistry, Biostatistics and Narrative Medicine (an area of medicine he had not formerly heard of, but is now excited to pursue). Will took advantage of the myriad professionals he met each day to learn even more about what his future will look like. Building and effectively using a professional network is key to a young professional’s career growth for several reasons: professionals can provide first-hand knowledge about an industry or organization, they can connect a student to others in the field, they can provide valuable advice about courses that can contribute to a student’s career readiness, and they can act as valuable references when students are applying to post-graduate opportunities.

This is exactly what happened for Will, “I routinely met with the residents and attending physicians during seminars and had opportunities to engage and shadow in their clinical practices. They described and walked us through common practices in their field of work and procedures that they perform on a regular basis. These medical specialties included but were not limited to emergency medicine, family medicine, gastrointestinal, OB/GYN, orthopedics, pediatrics, and psychiatric. Through these interactions I was able to develop relationships and build my professional network with them.”

Students should use their summers to develop important career knowledge and skills but should also actively seek feedback. Many employers will wait until the last week of the summer to have a 1-1 meeting and evaluation, but by then, it might be too late to improve upon a technology skill or daily client interaction. Soliciting someone’s feedback also shows that you are serious about learning and self-improvement. This is often the way mentor relationships begin, as that professional will often become invested in your student’s progress. Continued correspondence is encouraged; students shouldn’t forget to mention what they learned in their thank you notes—occasional updates on progress in a particular area is also a great way to remain connected!

Participating in one or two experiential education opportunities while in college can provide students with many benefits including testing out a particular interest or skills learned in the classroom, gaining practical experience, building a professional network, securing an edge in the post-graduate job market and often even starting at a higher salary. But perhaps the most important benefit of having multiple summer experiences and taking the time to think reflectively about how they have informed a future academic or career path, is the self-confidence a student gains through self-awareness, intentional decision-making and the ever-evolving personal and public narrative that will help them to manage their career long after they have graduated.