Courtney Spence on How to Improve College Internship Programs

In Chapter 14 of 16 in her 2011 Capture Your Flag interview, non-profit founder and executive Courtney Spence answers "What have you learned about designing a more impactful college internship program?" Spence shares what she has learned about designing more impactful college internship programs. Using training, benchmarks, deliverables, and feedback interviews, she creates a more structured and measurable 10-week internship program. Spence is founder and executive director of Students of the World, a non-profit that partners with passionate college students to create new media to highlight global issues and the organizations working to address them. Spence graduated with a BA in History from Duke University.


Erik Michielsen:  What have you learned about designing a more impactful college internship program?

Courtney Spence:  I have learned a lot.  So you know, this year we went, you know, and formalized the Students of the World experience to be a ten-week internship and really formalized it more so in the spring and in the fall, so in the spring our students have deliverables and benchmarks, both research and creative that they have to hit every month. You know, last year was the first year we did, you know, three-, four-day trainings with each team, and that was tremendous. You know, we invested so much more in the student experience last year because we made that hard decision to go from seven to three teams and really had to trim down, but, you know, by doing less we were able to do so much more.  And we were able to do exit interviews with our students when they left at the end of the summer, and it was – it was really incredible because I think, you know, our students, the feedback that we got was overwhelmingly positive, the work that we got was overwhelmingly positive.  Problems that we would have encountered every year prior to last year in the field weren’t there as frequently.  There were still problems but they weren’t there as frequently.  

And I think one of the important things that we have learned is really, you know, at the very beginning, the way that you communicate with students is extremely important and understanding that you need to set goals and benchmarks, and here are our values, and here is what we do, and here is what we don’t do, and communicating that all up front, and being able to say this is what we – at minimum, this is our best hope for you guys in terms of the work that you’ll produce, but we know you’re gonna, you know, shoot for the moon.

And, you know, one of the things that we did this last year, which was sort of a learning year for us was, you know, we had all of these expectations of what we could do in post production and, you know, you hear six weeks of work, and our students were like ‘what are we gonna do for six weeks?’  You know, and then what happened was – at like, you know, five-and-a-half weeks, they’re like ‘I can’t believe we only have three days left,’ you know, because there was just so much more work that they wanted to do and that we could have done, but really kind of setting those goals from the beginning and being able to be realistic in what we can achieve but also giving students the flexibility and creativity to work within sort of some broader frameworks means that they’ll come back with really creative products that are very effective for the organization.  You know, we had students do stop-motion animation, which was not even anything I knew anything about until last year, but because, you know, we were able to give our students some creative freedom, an expression of how they wanted to tell the stories, we got some really, really great work out of that.  

And then I just think really constantly, you know, checking in with the individuals as well as the team, and what we did last year is we had each -- the producer of each team wrote us a weekly report of here’s where the team is at and we wanted both in terms of the work that they were doing but also in terms of the emotional, where is the team at, and it was really nice to empower our producers to take on that role and then come with us, and, you know, and talk with us as they were having, you know, issues and problems throughout post production.  I think it’s important when you work with college students to empower them to take leadership within projects that they’re, you know, they’re involved in, and not just talking down to them, but actually saying we’re all in this together, so let’s find a way to work in effective ways.