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Demystifying the student summer internship

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

A music-filled summer, unpaid

Summer is supposed to be a time of rest and relaxation, but this idea completely evaporates when you get an unpaid internship. Some industries pay their interns, but in many fields, the number of unpaid internships is still significantly higher than those that pay.

I spent the summer between my first and second year interning for free at the radio station Indie88 as a Digital Media Intern. The first week was amazing. I was invited to help with an interview shoot, and I was stoked to meet people and discuss whatever music news had come in each morning.

By around week three, I was finishing up my primary task of writing briefs of old pop culture news in 300-word segments. I hoped that my efficiency would shine and that I would get invited to try new things and learn more skills. Unfortunately, the majority of my afternoons were filled with linking YouTube videos to the website and doing general online maintenance.

At end of the summer, I was rewarded with two feature pieces for my portfolio and a pair of concert tickets. I didn’t learn many new skills, but I met interesting people and was able to fully immerse myself in Toronto’s music scene. What I gained most from my experience was the ability to see this industry without the rose-coloured glasses — I understood it for what it was, unpaid and all.

My advice for those pursuing internships would be to apply to those for which you feel underqualified. Prior to my internship, I didn’t consider myself a music journalist by profession, only by hobby. However, my experience was valid and my passion evident. This carried over in my interview for the position.

I would also stress the importance of evaluating your mental health when taking on responsibilities such as unpaid internships. That summer was amazing, but it also meant I was working paid nights to cover my unpaid days. This sleep deprivation stayed with me long after my internship and, in my opinion, affected a large part of my second year.

If you have the means to do unpaid internships, I recommend gaining the experience. If you don’t, keep pursuing your dreams in other ways, such as through extracurriculars or less time-consuming volunteering. Experience is valuable, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come through an internship.

— Chantel Ouellet

Overqualified at TIFF

During the summer months of 2017, I worked at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) as their Editorial Intern. It was a two-month contract to support their creative team with the publication of festival materials — particularly with the program guide, which compiled images, bios, and descriptions of what would be 300 or so films for that year. I also generated pitch material for press conferences — including those of Call Me By Your Name and Meditation Park — and TIFF’s member magazine, 180°.

A friend sent me a link to the job in late May after I finished the Jackman Humanities Institute Scholar-in-Residence program, and having nothing else to do that summer, I decided to apply.

Much of getting a job is dependent on luck — and I was lucky. I was interviewed briefly over the phone by the individual who would later be my supervisor a few weeks following my application. Then I was called in-house to speak with some of TIFF’s editorial staff. A perfunctory chat ensued: have you been to the festival before? What are your favourite films? Can you tell us about an experience that challenged you? Things like that.

I was overqualified for the position, true, but it wasn’t so much the qualifications that mattered. Qualifications were what got you the phone call. It was about how I could mesh with what was already a tight-knit team. Interviews are about interest. The cliché maxim of ‘be yourself’ is a cliché for a reason, because that’s all you need to do: be yourself. The interview ended with a small test. Nothing strenuous, just some writing. I started promptly in June.

Two months passed and before I knew it, my contract was up. TIFF was my first real job, my first adult place of employment, where I worked a nine-to-five schedule and wore clothes that could be broadly identified as ‘smart casual,’ though no one really cared how you looked.

I am grateful to have had such a formative experience with the company, really. If I could say anything about what I learned, I’d say: smile, walk with your head high, wear comfortable footwear, and leave your feelings at the door. Also, breathe. It’s scary, and suddenly you feel like you’ve aged 30 years. But your first real job is something you’ll remember forever, good or bad.

— Jonathan Dick

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

Working abroad in a science lab

As a young lad about to finish his tenure at U of T, one of the highlights of my time here was my summer research excursion to Germany. Among the biggest benefits of going to a large and renowned university are the opportunities it offers that allow you to go beyond the classroom to learn not just about your field of study but the world at large. Spending three months in a chemistry research lab in Mainz was fantastic — it expanded my view of the international academic world and gave me the chance to travel and explore central Europe on a student budget.

My weekdays were filled with exciting work, synthesizing catalytic nanoparticles and utilizing a slew of analytical techniques to characterize them. Working alongside a friendly and knowledgeable supervisor, it hardly felt like work and involved many challenging yet intriguing problems.

On the weekends, thanks to interconnected train systems, I could travel to nearby cities like Brussels, Berlin, Zurich, and Amsterdam. I met folks of all shapes, sizes, and quirks — especially in youth hostels and Airbnbs. I still keep in touch with many of the people I met. Emboldened by the foreign environment, I visited bizarre exhibits, enjoyed local beers, and even spent a day climbing a mountain. Time away from the stress of U of T really helped me refocus when I begrudgingly returned at the end of the summer.

Because of two of the largest barriers most people face — namely, time and money — I never thought I’d be able to go on a trip like this. I’m extremely grateful to have had financial support from U of T’s Centre for International Experience and the University of Mainz, as I could not have covered the cost of the trip without finding scholarships and grants. If there’s anything you should learn from my experience, it’s that it never hurts to send a few emails and to explore opportunities, because as long as you are a tuition-paying student, you have tons of resources here that can help make even the most improbable of trips become a reality.

— Nareg Kara-Yacoubian

Pre-law opportunities on Bay Street

Last winter, like this winter, I scoured the internet for summer employment opportunities to the point of losing count of the number of jobs I had applied to. One of the applications was for the Diversity & Inclusion/Indigenous Pre-Law Internship Program at Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP (Blakes) in partnership with TD Legal. A few weeks after I submitted my resumé and cover letter through U of T’s Career Learning Network, I was emailed with the prospect of a phone interview.

I attended an in-person interview with representatives from both companies and landed the job as one of two students for the summer. I accepted the offer of employment, despite the internship only lasting two months. As a major corporate law firm on Bay Street, the company offered pretty good wages — and I needed to pay rent.

Of course, the experiences I had during the internship were rewarding as well. I was afforded many of the opportunities that summer law students received and attended events with them, including the Women’s Law Association of Ontario Awards Gala, legal seminars and workshops, and company social events. Most of my work involved diversity and equity issues within the practice of law, and I worked on initiatives of such kind. I also conducted comparative analyses of company policy and practice of recruitment, retention, and workplace culture for underrepresented folks who identify as women, Indigenous, Black, racialized, LGBTQ+, and disabled.

The internship not only allowed to me to internally see the starkness of the diversity problem in the corporate law sector, but it also underscored how diversity is increasingly being commodified for corporate profit. I ended my summer grateful for the opportunity but aware of the importance of being mindful to address these issues meaningfully as I set out to begin on my own path toward a legal education.

I would highly encourage undergraduate students considering law school to apply for this annual opportunity, even if you don’t want to enter the corporate sector, as it gives you a concrete everyday look at what the life of law students entails. The internship was a unique opportunity, and Blakes puts in effort to better the experience every year.

— Priyanka Sharma

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

To Silicon Valley and back

I’m a fourth-year Book & Media Studies major with a double minor in Women & Gender Studies and English, and I plan to graduate this June.

I worked as Instagram’s first Business Intern in Silicon Valley for two summers in 2015 and 2016, and then I was an Editorial Intern at VICE Canada here in Toronto last summer. For me, gaining work experience throughout undergrad was, as with most things, all about being totally unprepared.

If you decided that you wanted to be a doctor or lawyer at 10 years old, then good for you and please take care of me later. For everyone else, when you don’t know where your career path will take you, and you lack experience, money, clout, and business-casual attire, your dream job doesn’t really exist.

Going into university, my dream ‘job’ was talking to people about Saturday Night Live and eating snacks in exchange for money. I didn’t know that I would be working in television after graduation, and I certainly didn’t have any experience working in tech or journalism. I only knew that I was interested in certain aspects of comedy, the media industry, social activism by and for young people, and that I had a knack for building communities and writing on the internet.

When you don’t know what you want, which is fine, the search for experience and money then becomes about making informed guesses and learning from them. Without really understanding the scope of my role, I decided that uncertainty and wanting to live in California were good enough reasons to apply for an internship at Instagram. Working there for two years as a consultant and event organizer for teen communities who use the app urged me to focus on my own creative work and to understand more about the Canadian industry. At VICE Canada, I wrote for online editorial and videos and loved my team. The position also helped me realize that I prefer writing fiction to journalism.

Don’t worry so much about what will look good or bad on your resumé, it won’t help you know yourself better. Throughout the past few summers, I was surprised by how much the roles themselves were backgrounded by the value of gaining real-life experience. Meeting people who knew a lot more than I do about my interests and figuring out the aspects of full-time, media-centric jobs that I do and definitely do not enjoy were indispensable in helping me discover what is now a professional and creative identity that I’m really proud of. Search for opportunities within or closest to the realms of your interests and skills, take guesses at what you might like to try doing, and be fine with feeling unprepared — more than once.

— Celeste Yim 

Advice for government internships

I currently work as a councilor’s aide intern at the City of Toronto as part of the Muslim Youth Fellowship Program. I applied because I had the necessary experience and wanted to learn more about the municipal political process.

After submitting my application, there was a long wait. I waited over a month to hear back, and sometimes it takes even longer, so be patient. The hardest part in any job application process is always the interview. When you’re being interviewed, remember that you must prove to your interviewer that you are the best person for the job, so sell yourself. At the same time, be yourself, crack a joke, and most importantly, relax. It’s simple enough.

I love working at City Hall. I perform a multitude of tasks, from planning events to writing motions to doing administrative work. The Muslim Youth Fellowship has an exceptional leadership program, which helped me develop the soft skills that I need to become an effective leader.

Before applying to any job, you should look over the job description and see if you have the necessary skills. Needless to say, don’t apply to something for which you don’t have the qualifications. I have heard horror stories from employers where they had hired a student and soon figured out the student had lied about their skills. If you don’t have the skills for your dream internship, apply to another one where you can learn those skills, and try the dream job the following year. It is also good practice to tweak your resumé accordingly — if there is a skill that you have not highlighted in your resumé and the employers are asking for it, put it in.

Another important note is to always make sure your resumé is simple and easy to read. Yes, having cool graphics is nice, but the most important thing is what’s written. Make sure what you have written is actually important, talk about what you did at the job but also talk about your accomplishments. Employers want to know that you excelled at your job.

— Haseeb Hassaan

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY