People joke about the 90s seem like they were only about 10 years ago. I get that. This summer marks the 20th anniversary of when I was lucky enough to attend the Institute on Political Journalism, an internship program through The Fund for American Studies that kicked off my career in journalism. For the record, I do not feel as old as I apparently am.
But I can't deny my age this week, because I'll be facing a few hundred college students who are embarking on summer internships in the nation's capital, and my goal is to help them be successful by telling them what strategies worked for me 20 years ago when I was a student in the same program. I'll also try to help them learn from my own mistakes.
In preparing my remarks, I started pondering all the things that are so very different now from 20 years ago. There's so much technology that was in its infancy, or didn't exist, back then that it's difficult to compare the overall life experience today's college students have to mine in the mid-90s.
College students didn't have cell phones. We had a land line in the dorm room that we shared with our roommates, if anybody happened to be home to actually answer it. Since nobody brought an answering machine with them for the summer, we didn't have any form of voicemail. We called our parents once or twice a week, usually from the office where we were interning, because we were too busy to be bothered back at the dorm.
Not everybody had email, and nobody had a laptop. You were lucky if one person in your dorm room had brought their big computer tower and massive monitor, and was willing to share it with everybody else. And even if you did have a computer, you had to use something like AOL dial-up to get online, or go to the university computer lab. Businesses were still learning how to integrate email into everyday life, and most small businesses didn't see the purpose of spending money to give an intern email access. There was no Google. We still went to libraries for research.
We had fewer distractions because we didn't have smart phones, social media or Wi-Fi. And we got to know the rest of our classmates because we didn't have phones to bury our noses in whenever we sat waiting as a group. People talked to each other, however awkward it may seem now, in a culture where it's considered rude to interrupt a stranger tapping on their phone.
Even with all the changes that have occurred (I'm still waiting on a lot of things the Jetsons led me to believe we'd have by now), the basic principles and guidelines of how to be successful in business or politics still apply. Basic professional etiquette is the same, only a few things needed to be updated.
1) Be on time. For everything. First impressions are important. You don't want to be remembered as the person who is never on time. It doesn't inspire confidence in your supervisors, colleagues, or classmates.
2) Always say thank you. You're going to meet a lot of politicians, journalists, important business leaders, and talking heads in a good internship program. Try to thank every person who gives a talk, and send a follow-up note to those you want to have really remember you. When your boss takes you out to lunch to talk about your goals, say thank you and send an email note.
3) Dress and behave the way a professional in that industry would - you're interning because that's what you want to be when you grow up, right? Nothing less than business casual is appropriate, if for no other reason than keeping your skirt at a reasonable length for the workplace. Model your wardrobe after professionals you admire, not reality TV stars. Just because you see some employees at your internship dressing like slobs doesn't mean you should dress down, too. Remember, they already have jobs there. You don't know what they looked like when they were hired.
4) Volunteer for every possible opportunity to learn more at your internship. Be the first to grab assignments, and ask for more work when your hands are free. Don't use your downtime to catch up on social media when you should be using it to climb the professional ladder. People will notice.
5) Maintain the professional image that you want to project all of the time, including when you go out socially after class or your internship. You never know who you'll run into after-hours, and they'll remember you for the wrong reasons if you're sloppy drunk and obnoxious at Happy Hour. There's plenty of time to embarrass yourself in the future, after you've gotten a job. Never have more than one drink at a business-related function.
6) Focus on the people who are talking to you. Whether they're professors, mentors, supervisors, colleagues, or classmates, practice staying focused on the conversation at hand, and making eye contact. The latest generation of graduates seems to really struggle with this, many having been raised in an environment where it's socially acceptable to look at your phone every two minutes no matter what you're doing, or with whom. Go ahead and turn off all those social media notifications on your phone so that you won't even be tempted to peek. Unless you're using the phone for work, you shouldn't even have it out and visible.
7) Respect your elders and use proper titles unless otherwise instructed. Very few college students now grew up calling adults Mr. Jones or Mrs. Smith. We've changed into a first-name society. But business in major cities is a slightly different animal, and until you're given the green-light to call someone by their first name, stick with formality. You can never go wrong that way.
8) Use good table manners. No, I'm not being patronizing. I'm being real. College students - especially the gentlemen - seem to forget all they've been taught about proper table manners after a few years away at school. Time to dust them off and put them to good use, because people will notice if you have your elbows on the table inhaling your food like a prisoner. And no, it's not okay to hold your hand in front of your face while you talk with your mouth full of food. All of the contacts you'll be making through your internship are potential employers or mentors and you want them to feel confident you can handle yourself at a business lunch.
9) Don't put in writing anything that you don't want to have the whole world see. This was true before we had computers, and it's still true today. Now it's even more dangerous because social media is instantaneous. And screenshots are forever. Don't destroy your chances for a future career opportunity by making an inappropriate Facebook comment about the office or your colleagues.
10) Network like it's your job. Don't just make time to learn about the speakers who'll be at your classes, but also get to know your classmates, program directors, and internship supervisors. There's no telling where your roommates are going in the future, and having those relationships to fall back on is critically important. Your summer internship isn't just for getting a reference for future job applications, you should be using it to meet more people in your chosen career field - people you may be sending your resume to for review in a year or two. Believe it or not, people do refer job candidates all the time. Lots of jobs are never even advertised because they're filled by a quick email sent to a close circle of friends, soliciting resumes.
I'm a strong believer in internships, paid, unpaid, and those with an academic requirement. Not only do they help undergraduates and new graduates get experience in their chosen career field, they're also a fantastic opportunity to get a foot in the door when it's time to find a job.
Approach every day as the unique challenge that it is - a learning experience that many other students would love to have, but you got it instead. Mind your manners, start and finish strong, and you may just end up with a fantastic opportunity at the end. Good luck!