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A new pilot program being first introduced in VCU's Department of Psychology will expand student internship opportunities. (Getty Images)

College to Career: VCU to launch pilot program to expand student internship opportunities

The pilot is part of a larger university goal of creating a talent pipeline that addresses high-demand workforce needs and retains talent within Virginia.

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A pilot program being rolled out in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Department of Psychology will expand high-quality internship opportunities for students, add career readiness into the curriculum, and increase the number of courses that have an internship component.

The program, College to Career: Building a Blueprint for Career Readiness through the Disciplines, will start in the Department of Psychology and eventually be implemented across the College of Humanities and Sciences, which is home to 17 departments, two schools — the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture and the School of World Studies — and more than 13,000 students.

College to Career is funded by a grant from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s Commonwealth Innovative Internship Program, which provides competitive funding to encourage Virginia’s public colleges and universities to develop partnerships that provide innovative paid internship opportunities for students.

“Fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the importance of creating future-ready graduates who can navigate the transition from college to career as problem solvers and with confidence that the skills and knowledge developed in their academic studies prepares them to tackle real-world issues,” said Erin Webster Garrett, Ph.D., assistant vice provost for VCU’s Relevant, Experiential and Applied Learning initiative.

“Access to quality internships is a proven equalizer and enhances students’ socioeconomic mobility, improving their career trajectory and sense of well-being,” Webster Garrett said.

The pilot program — which is led by VCU REAL, VCU Career Services and the Department of Psychology — is part of VCU’s goal of creating a robust talent pipeline that not only addresses high-demand workforce needs but also retains that talent within Virginia.

“Through the [College to Career program], students’ classroom experiences will be better aligned with employer expectations and preferences,” Webster Garrett said. “Better employed graduates are more likely to be retained within the state, and that is good for VCU, our students and the commonwealth.”

The program will leverage the momentum of VCU’s REAL initiative, which was created to realize the pledge in 2016 by VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., that all students would have a real-world experience as part of their VCU education. “These experiences will become part of VCU’s overall curriculum, meaning that every student who earns a degree here will be well-regarded for their thoughtfulness and deep thinking, and because they have used their education to make a mark on humanity, even before they hit the job market,” Rao said in his announcement.

Participating in structured internships is often essential to securing the best-fit jobs or graduate school offers that students want to get after completing their undergraduate degrees and investing time, energy, and money in their education. — Samara Reynolds, director of VCU Career Services

College to Career, or C2C, builds off a Commonwealth Innovative Internship Program grant from SCHEV to VCU’s College of Engineering in 2019 to pilot curricular integration of career advising for all College of Engineering students.

“The current proposal extends the College of Engineering’s concept to the College of Humanities and Sciences and will be used to create customizable stand-alone course modules and implementation ‘blueprints’ for integration of career-based outcomes in the majors,” Webster Garrett said.

Jennifer Malat, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, said she is grateful that the team developed such an innovative program for the college.

"The College of Humanities and Sciences is excited to offer support for students to translate their on-campus learning to successful careers through the C2C program," she said. "As many of us know, an internship can be life-changing, providing real-world experiences and helping to establish connections with hiring managers and mentors."

The program is starting first in the Department of Psychology because the size, diversity and variety of career outcomes of psychology graduates offers an ideal pilot student group, and because the department has identified development of career preparedness curricula as a priority. The program is currently in a planning phase, and will begin to be implemented next summer.  

“The C2C program fits perfectly with the Psychology Department's goals currently — we are working to ensure that our students are able to identify and explore the many career paths possible with a B.S. in psychology,” said Michael Southam-Gerow, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychology. “The commonwealth of Virginia has identified several critical workforce shortages in Virginia and several are in fields for which a psychology degree is required or preferred.”

Internships can have a huge impact for students, Southam-Gerow said, cementing an interest in a particular field or helping to understand that a field may not be the right fit.

“Internships provide opportunities for students to try on a few different career paths and really spend some time in them before making a longer-term commitment,” he said.

Internships allow students to “reality-test career options, explore different industries and organizations, expand their professional network, build their resume in the direction of their goals, and open doors to future job and career opportunities,” said Samara Reynolds, director of VCU Career Services and co-chair of the grant’s action team alongside Webster Garrett.

“Participating in structured internships is often essential to securing the best-fit jobs or graduate school offers that students want to get after completing their undergraduate degrees and investing time, energy and money in their education,” Reynolds said.

While there is general consensus across higher education that internships are important and useful, Reynolds added that it is important to acknowledge that not every student has the same level of access, ability or encouragement to take advantage of these types of opportunities. Offering internships for academic credit as part of a student’s major requirements is one way to support participation, she said. And setting up students for success through career readiness reflection and training ahead of those experiences will ideally help them reap the most benefit from their internship, she added.

“The College to Career program will bring additional value and structure to the internship courses offered to psychology majors, and help establish new pathways and partnerships for faculty, staff and students seeking out high-quality internships and building toward excellent post-graduation outcomes,” she said.