An insight into virtual internships in the era of COVID-19, submitted by Chelsea Farrington, CTRS; who works with adults with developmental disabilities and student interns within her organization. Take a look at her top 5 tips for creating a quality virtual internship.
Just like everyone else in the world, during this pandemic, I have learned to pivot and adapt to the ever-changing situations that are thrown at us. On March 16th, 2020, I went home from work, not knowing that I would be working from home for the next 10+ months. On March 17th, the organization I worked for began offering online programs for our adults with developmental disabilities. Since then, we have continued to offer virtual programming, and we are expecting to continue offering 100 % virtual programming until the foreseeable future. When the shelter in place ordinance came, I was supervising four recreation therapy interns. My initial thought was we would be working from home for the three weeks the shelter in place ordinance was for and then we could be back in person and continue doing the recreation therapy internship as originally planned. I was wrong.
After two weeks of being home, I began to come to the realization that I would be working from home for at least 2 months, if not longer. At that time, I started to adapt and change what the recreation therapy internship would look like and change it to support working remotely. Since the start of the pandemic, I have had 8 recreation therapy interns finish their internships virtually. The first four interns began in person and switched to virtual halfway through; however, for the summer and fall semesters, I had two interns per semester that partook in a 100% virtual internship. For this upcoming spring semester, I am expecting to hire four virtual interns. Through my time supervising virtual interns, I have had a number of questions thrown at me. The most common questions I get about a virtual internship are the following: how can you ensure a quality internship for the interns, are they still learning the same material, and lastly, will they be prepared for an exam? Just like every other professional, I have had to adapt during this time. I have adapted how the internship is structured and what it looks like to fit our virtual world, yet still, ensure a quality internship that fits the NCTRC guidelines.
The process of switching from an in-person internship to a virtual internship was a huge learning curve and was an experience for me to grow as a supervisor. Through this, I have learned the process of supporting a virtual internship and am looking forward to sharing these tips with you.
Tip one: Hold space for where the interns are
Virtual internships are not ideal. Unfortunately, the interns have been thrown this curveball that they never expected and they are adapting to a virtual setting just like the rest of the world. For many interns, this is their first real experience in the recreation therapy field. When they begin an internship, they are excited to begin their career but of course, frightened due to the fact that they are so new to the field. A virtual internship is even more unsettling and nerve-wracking than a regular internship. It is imperative to hold space the first few weeks of an internship to allow for the interns to adjust to a virtual setting and an internship. Typically, the first two weeks of an internship is based around onboarding, shadowing, and training. When we are virtual, this aspect is even more vital than ever before. The first two weeks of a virtual internship should be geared toward working with the intern on becoming comfortable in the new virtual setting they are a part of. Everyone’s tech skills are different and everyone’s experience with being virtual is different. Some students have been virtual since March so they have adapted to what it’s like to work from home. However, other students have been virtual for a partial semester and now they are back in person; therefore, they don’t have as much exposure to work from home and all the technology needs that come with working remotely.
Tip 2: Give them extra support
Personally, when I was supervising interns in person, I would see them pretty frequently. If they weren’t facilitating a program, we would be sitting in my office working on work. Typically, I would be working on my own work and then the intern would be planning/ completing case studies, etc in the office with me. This allowed the interns to work independently yet ask for help when needed. I was always available for support when needed. One challenge of a virtual internship is that there is not that opportunity to sit in the same office and work together. Being virtual means that I am working in my own house and the intern is working in theirs and we see each other during programs or check-ins. Due to the fact that you will not have frequent, authentic-time with your intern it is imperative to be intentional about when you are seeing them and how much time you spend with an intern. For me, when I switched to virtual, I increased the number of check-ins I did with my interns. We also increased the number of recreation therapy team meetings. This allowed for the interns to be able to rely on their co-workers and to seek advice from other people if for whatever reason they couldn’t get ahold of me. The first two weeks of the internship I was doing a half-hour long check-in per day with the interns, since then we have scaled back, but I set the expectation early on that communication would be vital to ensure a successful internship.
Tip 3: Create an organized plan
As with any successful internship, it is important to have a plan. At my organization, we have an intern manual and a 30, 60, 90-day checklist to go over with the interns. This helps to ensure the interns are completing the NCTRC job task analysis but also gives them an idea of what they will be working on each week. When I first switched to supervising interns virtually, I spent a good chunk of time thinking of what I wanted an internship to look like. We are not offering programs as many hours as we did in person so I had to think about what the interns would be doing during those hours. When I began to organize what the internship would look like I broke down how many hours the interns would be facilitating programs, how many hours would be spent planning, etc. One thing that helped me create a plan was connecting with other RT’s and asking what was working for them. I also reached out to professors to get advice on what a virtual internship would look like in their eyes. From there, once I had a plan, I created a virtual internship manual, which has been our north star to help guide us when we are at a crossroads.
Tip 4: Encourage Creativity
I work at a non-profit organization for adults with disabilities. One huge benefit of virtual programming is we’ve been able to do virtual tours as a part of our programming. This has allowed participants to go to places they would never have been able to see otherwise. We’ve done virtual tours of different national parks and also different countries. It’s been a blast to see how much the participants enjoy this! Encourage your interns to get creative with their programming. The options for virtual programming are endless! There are so many new programs to explore and things to offer for our participants that we may not be able to, were we in person. Remember, internships are all about trial and growth. Allow your interns to try new programs and if it doesn’t go perfect the first time, use that as a teaching opportunity to help your interns grow and learn for the next time.
Tip 5: Use your resources
Just like in person, it is so vital to create a network and be able to connect to other recreation therapists. Additionally, there are tons of other resources that are available if you look for them. I have used a ton of resources that were made for teachers who are teaching virtually and then adapted it to fit what I needed. Read the blogs, take the training, watch YouTube videos, etc. Just because it is designed for teachers doesn’t mean it can’t be educational. One of my favorite blogs is cult of pedagogy (https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/). A great YouTube channel that talks about resources to use in a virtual setting is the New EdTech Classroom (https://www.youtube.com/c/NewEdTechClassroom/videos). This channel talks about how to create engaging content for students (in my case for our participants). Most of the resources this YouTuber talks about I require the interns to use in their programs because it has drastically increased engagement.
Being virtual is hard! There are so many factors that are out of our control (i.e: family members interrupting meetings, the internet going out, laptop dying, etc); however, through the hardships and trials, I continue to advocate to have virtual interns. As we all know, it is imperative for a recreation therapist to complete their internship to ensure graduation from college and be eligible to take their exam. As professionals, it is our responsibility to help mentor and guide students through the internship process, regardless of if that is in person or virtual. If we do not adapt to the new normal (working from home, remote programming, etc) we are doing a disservice to our interns and the field as a whole. As professionals, if we do not begin to adapt to the new norm we will not have enough internship opportunities for our students. This will then push their internship and graduation date out by a least a semester but possibly longer. Of course, if this continues that would then push people away from the field and unfortunately would make our already small field even smaller. Recreation Therapy is a small, tight-knit field, but it is growing and expanding every year! The only way we can continue to grow and expand is to mentor our students as they transition from student to intern and from intern to professional.