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What’s in a name?: The upside of working for a small organization

Let’s face it: we all want the big-name internship. We want potential future employers to glance at our resume and, upon seeing that top-tier financial institution or that non-profit that’s been all over the news, rescue our application from the black hole of the job hunt.

I knew this wasn’t what I was going to get when I accepted my internship at Active Minds, Inc., a D.C.-based non-profit dedicated to promoting frank discussion about mental health and help-seeking behaviors on college campuses. When asked the obligatory “Where are you interning?” at various social events this summer, I saw my conversation partners’ eyes glaze over during my elevator pitch, typically followed by a nod or, if I was lucky, a “That sounds cool.” They usually had no idea what I was talking about.

While this could be discouraging (especially since my boyfriend often followed up with tales of his internship at Planned Parenthood, which, needless to say, received a much more positive reaction), there are a lot of reasons you should take that “no-name” internship.

Active Minds has 13 full-time staff members, some of them managing business aspects (such as communications, marketing, fundraising and development) that would normally require entire departments on their own. Most of my coworkers were in the same room with me, our cubicles lining the walls – at first, this was somewhat overwhelming, but I soon realized that this presented me with a golden opportunity to ask around for projects and do more than what my personal supervisor had set out for me.

And that I did. When I had downtime from my normal tasks, I helped out several of my other coworkers in different departments.  I now have several impressive, quantitative lines for my resume that touch on different skill sets: I single-handedly increased our following on a social media site by nearly 80 percent in two months; I spearheaded the revamp of a traveling awareness program that will visit 12 cities in eight states come this fall; and I helped design promotional materials that will go out to more than 350 active chapters in North America and Australia.

I also encountered unexpected opportunities that may never have surfaced in a larger organization – when our administrative assistant unexpectedly quit midway through the summer, I volunteered to take on more responsibilities, one of which includes managing our online store from receiving the initial order to sending off packages at the post office. Our executive director repeatedly thanked me for taking on a task that wasn’t part of my initial job description. Sure, not all of my work was glamorous, but every time my coworkers took the time to sincerely thank me for offering to help, I felt that every single thing I did at this job actually mattered.

As I sat down to write personalized thank-you notes to all of my coworkers during my last week, I surprised myself by having something unique to say to each of them, even the ones I did not often (if ever) work with directly. Working in such a small office encourages fast friendships and an overall sense of camaraderie. When none of us could focus, bubble-blowing, fro-yo field trips and dancing to 90s pop was not uncommon.  Sometimes I’d tell a particularly funny story from work to friends over dinner, and they’d gape at me and say, “Man, I can’t imagine talking about/doing something like that at my internship.” The warmth and welcome I received at my job made the transition so much smoother and my productivity much better than it may have been in a more impersonal office.

Given, I’m sure there are larger, bigger-name organizations that offer their interns plenty of opportunity for growth and a comfortable social atmosphere, but I feel fortunate to have had such a fruitful summer in a place that isn’t necessarily going to draw a lot of gasps or wide eyes from future employers. If I’ve learned anything from this summer, don’t disregard an internship just because it doesn’t sound impressive – it might just end up being the best decision you ever make.

None of this would have been possible without the assistance of a Summer Internship Grant Program (SIGP) grant. As a student whose education is funded entirely on scholarship, spending a summer without an income just wasn’t an option for me. Assistance from SIGP this summer meant the difference between working an ordinary summer job and having an experience that has invaluably informed my future career interests and allowed me to explore a new city at the same time. The existence of a program like SIGP proved to me that the work I want to do is valuable, even if the financial resources aren’t always available, and I will always be grateful to the donors who provided me with such an exciting and enriching summer experience.

About the NU Intern Blogger Program
This summer, over 50 Northwestern University students will be sharing stories about what they are experiencing at their internships from across the country and internationally. Each week new students will share an inside look at what it means to be an intern. Please contact Betsy Gill, Assistant Director, Internship Services if you have any questions.