Amy Kostilnik sits at her desk at The Glover Park Group -- the communications firm she interned at in college and now works at full time.
With the economy in the doldrums, it is especially difficult for today's college graduates to find full-time employment out of school. The tightening of the job market has prompted universities in Washington D.C. to become more aggressive about encouraging undergraduates to find internships before they graduate.
Importance of starting early
At Georgetown University, the career center has recently started targeting campus groups in hopes of getting members involved in internships. At George Washington University, advisors hold internship information sessions as early as freshman orientation.
Francine Blume, director of experiential learning at American University, says this all points to a changing culture. An internship is fast becoming a crucial piece of a college graduate's resume.
"When I first started here about 13 years ago, it gave you a definite advantage," Blume says. "But now, 13 years later, it is essential, it's just really key to being competitive."
American, like GWU and Georgetown, has also made a concerted effort to talk with students early on about the value of internships. According to US News and World Report, 85 percent of the school's class of 2010 graduated with internship experience -- the highest of any school that doesn't require internship credit for graduation.
"It's part of the culture. If for some reason a student is aware of internships, their roommate will talk to them about it, their faculty will talk to them about it, their academic advisors will talk to them about it, admissions will talk to them about it, and hopefully they'll come to the career center and we'll be talking about it as well," Blume said.
Experience uber alles
According to Blume, this culture will only help students, as the in-the-office experience students gain during an internship is essential--even more so than grade point averages.
"It's wonderful that you have a great GPA, I don't discourage that at all," Blume said. "But if someone has their choice between someone with a 4.0 and someone who has experience, their more than likely to take the person with successful experience."
Ruthi Postow, CEO of her own staffing company, places college grads in trade associations, non-profits and venture capital businesses across the district. If students want to get hired in Washington straight out of college, according to Postow, they need to clock some hours at an office.
"If they're right out -- if they were me, coming out of college where I had no experience and no internships, I don't have a job for me, I can't place me," Postow said.
Postow said employers want to know what skills interns get out of experiences: Can they give presentations? Have they used Microsoft Office? Are they good at balancing multiple projects?
But internships, Blume said, can also allow students to make connections with employers and colleagues that could lead to other jobs down the road. They can also help students figure out what they don't want to do after graduation. According to Blume, 50 percent of interns change their mind about their career paths during their internship experiences.
"Maybe they'd prefer something else that involves skill set, but is a different kind of career," she said.
That's why schools are encouraging students to have one internship -- if not two, or three -- under their belts before graduation day.
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