Paths & Perspectives
Your Career
Diversity Today

What I Learned From Doing 8 Internships In 4 Years

Estimated reading time ~ 6 min
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Cornell University senior Lydia Anglin. Image by Kelechi Mpamaugo.

When it comes to opportunities to learn, explore, and start to think through what I’ll pursue after graduation, some might say I’ve had a busy past few years.

Heading into my senior year, I’ve completed eight internships and counting, including stints at the 164th Civil District Court in Harris County, TX (in my hometown of Houston, TX), Shell Oil, the Obama White House, and two summers at Goldman Sachs in New York City.

But I started thinking about my career long before my first internship.

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a lawyer. Growing up, I took inspiration from powerful Black women like Michelle Obama and Condoleezza Rice and would study their profiles and accomplishments like a class. I learned that Michelle spent a summer at a prestigious law firm and Condoleezza had a strong track record in international affairs, so I started looking for opportunities that would one day allow me to do the same. At the ripe age of 16, I secured my first internship clerking for Judge Alexandra Smoots-Hogan in the 164th Civil District Court, and the experience changed my life. I originally found out about the opportunity through a friend of a friend of a friend of a family member and decided to go for it even though I knew I was too young. When the team realized that I wasn’t a law student as they had previously assumed, I had to work twice as hard to convince them that I was the right person for the job. I suspect that my tenacity and willingness to do anything — including work for free — is what finally convinced the judge to give me a chance. This internship was my first real exposure to the judicial system, and I learned that there are many different types of law and even more paths to pursuing it. Perhaps most importantly, I left that experience with an amazing mentor, Judge Smoots-Hogan, who armed me with the confidence that there was a place for Black women in the political system and instilled in me a passion to use my successes to pave the way for others.

To be clear, I do not think that it’s necessary for every student to complete eight internships in four years. For me, this path was an organic progression of following my interests and being open to new opportunities that would continuously arise. My internships have allowed me to explore a number of potential paths before committing to one thing and form a well-rounded perspective regarding where my passions truly lie. It’s incredible what people will teach and share with you when you present yourself as a sponge who’s eager to learn. Here’s what I’ve soaked up about seizing those opportunities to set yourself up for the best possible future.

1. Do your research.

Before you apply for an internship, give yourself ample time to research the company or program. This is critical. I have seen so many of my peers pursue opportunities without truly understanding what the company culture or their day-to-day experience will be like, only to figure it out too late. Use LinkedIn to see if anyone in your network has worked there or knows someone who has, and ask if he or she would be willing to share his or her experience and expertise on how to approach the opportunity. Find programs and resources that are dedicated to helping students achieve their academic and professional goals such as Jopwell, LEAD, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, Girls Who Code, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, and Girls Who Invest. Taking the time to do your research upfront can make all of the difference.

2. Work ahead of the deadline.

It certainly is not in your best interest to wait until 11:00 PM the day-of to start working on an application only to realize that you need two recommendation letters, an official transcript, and a notary signature. You’ve lost the race before even reaching the starting line. Create a schedule that allows you to review the requirements well in advance, and begin working early enough to complete a few drafts. It may seem like you’re creating unnecessary work, but you’ll feel more confident when you’re able to put your best foot forward.

3. Don’t expect to go from 0 to 100 right away.

Many students fail to understand that securing an internship at a place like the White House is a marathon, not a sprint. “Big-name” internships often require substantial previous experience, and by working your way up via smaller internships, you’ll gradually accumulate the credentials that make you a more competitive candidate. By the time I applied for my White House internship, my work history added up in a way that made sense. Shell (energy company) + Vinson & Elkins in M&A Law (energy policy) + Goldman Sachs (a financial institution) + engagement in a number of politically aligned activities (public service) + an obsession with the Obamas = perfect match to intern within the National Economic Council. Think about what your equation might look like, and start filling in the variables.

4. Accept that persistence is key.

Thanks to social conditioning, we, as young women, are often way too reserved in going after what we want. Fight this. Be the first one to stick your hand out at a networking event. Send that follow-up email. Don’t be afraid to apply for things far and wide, including opportunities for which you’re not 100-percent qualified, even if you are bound to receive a few rejection letters along the way. You only need one acceptance letter.

5. Treat every internship as a learning experience.

Learning what you don’t like is just as valuable of an experience as learning what you do. Ruling out a certain job or career path allows you to save time and money that you can then put toward the areas in which you truly are interested. When I clerked for Judge Smoots-Hogan, I expected to fall in love with the criminal law system like I had seen on Law & Order. I didn’t — I absolutely hated it. This revelation helped me discover my interest in corporate law and public policy, which I never would have investigated had I forced myself to continue pursuing criminal law. Self-discovery is an important part of the process, even if it means working in a role or an environment that you don’t like for a short period of time.

6. Figure out and respect your limits.

I have always worked. On-campus, summers, part-time, full-time — I’ve done it all. For many students with financial concerns, this is a simple reality. When balancing work, school, extracurricular activities, and internships while also trying to maintain some semblance of a social life, it’s easy to push yourself beyond your true capacity. And stretching yourself too thin all but guarantees that you’ll fall short.

I learned this the hard way during my White House internship last fall. In addition to feeling immense pressure to perform well in such a high-stakes environment for no pay, I was working a second job so that I could stay afloat financially, taking night classes, conducting undergraduate research, trying to make time for friends, cooking, cleaning, and everything else that’s necessary to function as a presentable human being. It quickly became clear that I couldn’t do everything and it was so hard to say no. I had to push everything that was non-essential to the back burner, including my social life and incredible opportunities like our class field trip to meet Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. To get back on track, I scheduled weekly meetings with my managers and professors to proactively receive feedback. Although this technically added to my schedule, knowing where I stood was calming and empowering. I made a point to surround myself with people who would keep me focused and hold me accountable for my goals.

In the end, I realized that effectively managing your time to avoid burnout is a tightrope and requires practice. Your balance might be different, but you owe it to yourself to take steps to figure out how to reach that steady point. Because that’s when you can truly get the most out of not just your internships, but also everything else you have the privilege to experience.

Video by Kelechi Mpamaugo

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