Intern from home: Moving a rite of passage online in 2020

May 8, 2020 | By Grace L. Williams

The call came for Elaina Conway just a few weeks ago while she was studying abroad in Barcelona. There was bad news on the other end of the line. The COVID-19 pandemic had worsened and the college junior needed to return home. Tearfully, she packed up and prepared for a radically different spring and summer than she’d been anticipating. For Conway, that meant more than just moving her classes at Providence College online. It also meant her internship at Mastercard (her second year in a row) was going to look radically different.

“The Purchase campus is about 20 minutes from my house and I really liked going to work,” she says. “Human interaction was a huge component. It helped me focus more and bounce ideas off my team. I made new connections and new friends.”

Olivia Pugh, a junior at Princeton, was also looking forward to her upcoming internship on Mastercard’s Purchase, New York, campus. When she got the call two weeks after her spring break that the program would be a bit different, Pugh took it on the chin. “It was a whirlwind going from being in person, going to class, going to practice to then suddenly realizing I’m going to be doing all of this from home,” she says.

The internship program, which kicks off June 15 in North America and Singapore (it started May 4 in India), is part of the lifeblood of Mastercard. But while several corporations and programs opted to cancel their summer internship programs outright, Amanda Wills, vice president of Talent Acquisition for Mastercard, wanted to find a way to continue the experience for roughly 300 incoming summer interns. In the past, interns enjoyed an eight- to 12-week placement that included a guest speaker series, networking opportunities, and interaction with one another and executives, all of which took place at one of Mastercard’s 16 corporate offices around the world.

Wills and her team opted to take the program online and make it remote. This meant a complete program overhaul, re-creating it from the ground up. “Interns typically require a little bit more high level of engagement and need a little more support and mentorship,” she says.

They shortened the length to four weeks but agreed to pay the interns their full summer program salaries. That was the easy part. The biggest challenges, however, lie in re-creating meaningful face-to-face experiences through streaming. Much of the value of any internship comes from casual hallway interactions and new relationships. Being in the building, interns get a deep sense of a company’s culture and can assess whether it’s the kind of place where they might one day like to work full-time. Re-creating that in cyberspace was a tricky problem.

To solve it, Wills and her team crafted a program that, while remote, still strives to give interns a sense of what day-to-day life is like at Mastercard, even if they’re working from their living rooms. In bringing the program online, the team wanted to create a space where interns could learn and interact with mentors and leadership at the company using programs and apps in the safety of their homes. The result is a program where they’ll be checking in with their mentors and team leadership frequently, and they’ll be assigned projects similar to what past programs have called upon interns to do.

Wills envisions a program where at the end of the term, interns can still say they got the most out of their time. “They may be joining client calls and taking notes,” she says. “They may be listening to a team brainstorming session and then ultimately be responsible for a small but meaningful contribution to the overall team effort.”

In addition, interns will also have the opportunity to present their work at the end of the project. “We don’t want an intern sitting there stuck and afraid to raise their hand because they can’t turn around and ask the question face-to-face,” she says. “Figuring out how to support them and that experience is going to be a challenge for them and for us.”

Another big challenge? The socialization aspect with other interns. Wills and her team plan to ensure that there’s an element of fun and kinship provided to participants through group activities, icebreakers, and virtual happy hours, and by encouraging them to be as digitally social as possible.

This generation may find the switch easier than previous intern groups. Both Pugh, 21, and Conway, 20, are considered members of the “digital” generation, born between 1995 and 2010. This makes them better prepared for the digital challenges that their upcoming internships present. Pugh, for example, has resorted to going on Zoom with her college classmates to have study dates. She says they keep their computers on mute, but it still gives a sense of studying together in the college library.

Conway adds that while she’d prefer to be meeting with people in real life, the digital element presents an opportunity for the interns to build skills outside the realm of what is normal. “This works to our advantage in a way that it gives us more communication skills, and to just make an effort and to really talk to more people rather than just bump into them at the office.”

Photo at top: Elaina Conway, center, interned last summer at Mastercard’s Purchase headquarters with her twin sister Emily, right, and Efe Alonge, left. 

Grace L. Williams