Dan Papscun had it all mapped out: By now, he figured, he’d have an internship lined up for the summer. He’d be settling into his new apartment in Glover Park. He’d be polishing up story pitches to send his new editor.
“I was hoping to dedicate the summer to working as hard as I possibly could,” he said.
Papscun, a journalism major, submitted about 20 internship applications at media companies throughout the District, he said. But now the American University sophomore is making new plans, after many of the companies he applied to — including NPR, WAMU and Slate — canceled their summer programs.
"It's a little bit of a letdown," Papscun said. He's back home in western Massachusetts, with no job lined up, hoping he can get by with freelance writing after he moves to Glover Park for the summer. "I need the experience."
Summer internships are an annual rite of passage around the country, and especially in the District, where undergrads flock to work at think tanks, media companies, nonprofits and congressional offices. At AU, 89 percent of undergraduate students hold at least one internship before they graduate.
But the novel coronavirus, which has yet to peak in the District, is upending that tradition, as businesses — with offices closed and many companies suffering financially — cancel and delay summer internship programs.
About 80 percent of employers nationwide are making changes to their programs, including shortening the length of the internships they offer or asking interns to work remotely, according to a National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of more than 400 companies. Several dozen companies are taking more extreme steps, the survey found, including canceling programs and rescinding offers.
Virtually no industry has been left unscathed, from tech to law to politics. Yelp cited concerns surrounding the virus when it canceled summer internships. Some congressional offices have moved to suspend their programs on Capitol Hill.
“Ongoing uncertainties of the pandemic, including restrictions on building access” forced NPR to scrap its summer program that normally attracts about 13,000 applicants, said Isabel Lara, a spokeswoman.
“We know how hard applicants worked on their applications and how disappointed they are,” Lara said in an email. “We look forward to reopening the program in the future and offering the hands-on training experience our interns are entitled to.”
Vicky Zhang, a junior at Washington University in St. Louis, recently learned that she’d no longer intern in New York for L’Oréal, the multinational cosmetics company.
“The moment you go into college, it feels like the junior-year internship is the culmination of all your hard work, all the experiences you’ve had,” said Zhang, who is double-majoring in economics and strategy, and finance.
With summer plans crumbling, college career advisers are fielding phone calls from frazzled students who worry these lost summers will hurt their future job prospects in what is, for now anyway, the worst labor market since the Great Depression.
Gihan Fernando, executive director of AU’s Career Center, said he’s being transparent with students about the dismal job market. But many students just want to know if the current dearth of opportunities will hurt their job prospects in the future.
“There’s a lot of studies and data that show if you’ve done an internship, your chances of getting employed effectively go up significantly,” he said. But “I do think employers are going to be understanding.”
He said students will have to get creative with their time; those who planned to spend the summer with a member of Congress might consider pursuing an independent research project about gun control or voter suppression.
Companies may start tapping students for “microinternships,” or short-term, project-based work, Fernando said. He’s also encouraging students to consider other résumé-building opportunities, including volunteering to tutor a high schooler or planning a community service project.
But those options won’t help students counting on internships to earn money. Many students can’t afford to work for an entire summer without a single paycheck.
Ahva Sadeghi had those students in mind when she co-founded Symba, a San Francisco-based start-up that helps companies offer virtual internships. She wanted to make internships more accessible for students who couldn’t “get their foot in the door because they can’t afford to live in Washington, D.C., or New York City,” Sadeghi said.
Months ago, companies scoffed at the idea of hosting virtual internships. But this past month, “our business has almost doubled,” Sadeghi said. “This was a whole new level.”
Congressional campaigns and tech companies, including Facebook and Uber, are hiring remote interns. In late June, about 1,000 interns will log on for a virtual internship at food and beverage company PepsiCo, said Blair Bennett, senior vice president of talent acquisition.
Leaders are building the virtual internship to be similar to the face-to-face experience, Bennett said, but also acknowledged the things that make in-person work special — impromptu coffee meetings, water cooler chatter, casually bumping into a company executive — won’t be replaced. Officials have planned a mentorship program and speaker series for the incoming interns.
“This is a unique opportunity,” Bennett said, “for students to actually be part of a company when business isn’t as usual.”