Internships amidst COVID-19 and racial justice awareness

Internships are valuable opportunities that set students up for success. Beyond experience working in an office, internships help expand your network of contacts, expose you to new knowledge and new fields, or possibly land a future job. Although internship availability has taken a hit due to the hardships and economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still opportunities out there. Our expert panel of architects, recruiters, and interns offer their firsthand insight on interning in the time of coronavirus. Listen to a recording of the webinar here, and read further for some highlights from the discussion

Panelists

Michael A. Enomoto, FAIA: Managing Partner, Gruen Associates

Kate Thuesen, AIA: Senior Associate + Client Lead, DLR Group

Jose Sanchez, Associate AIA: Senior Associate +Mixed Use Design Leader, DLR Group

Abriannah Aiken: USC B. Arch 2021, DLR Group Intern

Johann Wilson: University of Oregon B. Arch 2021, DLR Group Intern

Nissa Dahlin-Brown, Assoc. AIA, (Moderator): Director of Higher Education Programs, AIA National

Internships Today

Experiences can vary across firms and locations, but here’s what an internship can look like, based on information from the paid internship programs at DLR Group and Gruen Associates. Enomoto reports that many of Gruen’s interns go on to become full-time staff members, while Thuesen emphasizes that DLR group hosted 70 interns this year, fulfilling the firm CEO’s commitment to learn from the past recession and not “lose a generation of architects.”

Office Experience: Interns are integrated into the staff workforce as regular members of the staff and are treated as such.

Opportunity: Firm leaders on the panel prioritize providing their interns with well-rounded exposure to all aspects of their practice – site visits, charettes, and client calls. One firm also invites interns to take a personality survey to understand their communication style.  

Beyond Design: “Studio culture and the way that we learn how to design is incredibly important,” Thuesen says, “But teaching young architects what it means to be ethical, write contracts, develop soft skills, have better client relationships, and work effectively with teams is the most important lesson I can provide to the next generation.”

Getting an Internship

Winning an intern position is more competitive than ever. But the panel has a variety of pointers to help aspiring interns find opportunities and stand out.

When: Applying in April or May may be too late. Get your application in well before the summer internship period starts.

Where: Job fairs, lectures, and other networking events are still happening virtually, and they can be a good source of information and connections. A wide variety of associations prioritize supporting interns through grants, information, and other resources. Just a few listed by the panel include: Asian American Architect and Engineering Association (AAa/e), Construction Management Association of America (CMAA), National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), ACE Mentor program (for high school students), Architect U.S. (for international students), AIA’s Center for Emerging Professionals, and your local AIA component. Consider volunteer opportunities in or related to the field, like Habitat for Humanity and architecture camps.

Who: It always comes back to your network. All of the panelists stressed that cultivating and relying on your network is key. Find ways to be active in the organizations and events listed above. Don’t underestimate platforms like LinkedIn – not just to make connections but to post content that can draw attention to your work.

Application Do’s and Don’ts

  • Don’t address your application with a generic “To Whom it May Concern.” Do your research and find the best contact. When you can, reference some interaction you’ve had, or event speeches you’ve heard, involving the firm or firm contact you’re addressing. If all else fails, call the firm and ask who you should contact. Also consider conducting an “informational interview” with the contact. Even if no opportunities are available right now, you are expanding your network and learning more about how you might contribute to the firm and the profession in the future.
  • When it comes to your portfolio, show a wide variety and be bold. “When you’re in school, that’s the only time there’s no [budgetary] cap on your creativity,” Wilson says. “Believe in yourself and your design.”
  • Apply, apply, apply. No one knows you’re interested if you don’t ask. Enomoto recounts his early experience applying at a firm that wasn’t hiring. He instead asked a firm leader for help reviewing his resume. He began work there the next day, and is still there 48 years later. Moral of the story: Approach the problem from a different direction.
  • Don’t get discouraged. As the panelists point out, there are always ebbs and flows to the architectural economy. But firms are looking for people who can add value. Cultivate your skills, recognize what you have to offer, and be persistent (without becoming an annoyance).

Interning in Today’s Virtual World

On the bright side, many firms are already ahead of the curve on incorporating virtual technology to their day-to-day operations. With a few adjustments, virtual internships are shaping up to be just as rewarding – and even more collaborative – than usual, as the intern and firm leader panelists shared.

Onboarding and Collaborating: Our panelists report that their firms dedicate significant time and resources to keeping interns in the loop – from a five-hour virtual onboarding process, to regular virtual townhall meetings that provide interaction across a range of departments, to dedicated knowledge-sharing platforms for interns.

Staying Connected: The firm leaders are committed to building a strong team culture. For Sanchez, that means team meetings every other day to share work, plus daily morning emails with interns to touch base on the day ahead, followed by check-ins at the end of the day. Even if it’s a video chat to talk about sports or Star Wars, Sanchez and other firm leaders are dedicated to building trust – a practice that affirmed its value during a summer of demonstrations and emotional conversations about racial justice, amid a pandemic.

Inclusive Culture: Both our intern panelists emphasized that a focus on racial equity is essential. It’s an issue they’re involved in on their campuses and through their work, and they expect firms to prioritize equity, diversity and inclusiveness. Wilson remarked that he was “excited and relieved” to see DLR Group’s public expressions of support for racial justice demonstrations. “As a person of color, it’s very hard to navigate this field by yourself,” he says. “Being in a firm that I know aligns with my thoughts and vision for the world is something I’m very thankful for.” He added: “As we move forward, I hope that we as architects can begin to see the world through others’ eyes because it is our innate power to inherently create equitable and inclusive spaces for all walks of life to truly enjoy.”

Parting Advice

When it comes to the value of internships, the panel leaves no doubt that investing in future architects is an essential priority – bringing rewards to both the profession and the future professional.

Enomoto: Architecture is a wonderful profession. One of the most rewarding things you can do in life is to create an environment where people live and work and play. You can’t beat it for what it does for you emotionally. I encourage everyone to join it.

Thuesen: There’s something energizing about working with college students and individuals who are on the cusp of beginning a career in architecture. And their passion, their drive, their enthusiasm for the future has always inspired me.

Sanchez: I believe architects can make a significant impact on our built environment and society, bringing more resilience and equity to it. We can’t lose our thinkers to other industries. We need to grow and evolve our profession, attracting the young professionals and thinkers who can bring our profession forward into the future. It’s our role to invest and grow those individuals in our practice.

Aiken: I had a lot of friends who had their internships revoked or couldn’t find any this summer. So I would say if anyone is on the fence about bringing on interns, take a chance on us. We’re excited to learn and roll with the punches in this new virtual realm, just like you are. For my fellow students, if you don’t have an internship this summer, don’t get discouraged. Find other ways to get involved in the architecture world. For everyone, let’s make sure we keep racial justice in mind always, and incorporate that into our design.

Wilson: Architecture is one of most rewarding fields, and it’s something that many people don’t often think about day to day. Architectural work affects so many, but we’re so few. Realizing the great power we have and using it to do good in the world is truly in our best interests and in everyone’s best interest. Also, continue throughout life to help people of color and under-represented communities because we inevitably shape their lives without knowing that we do.

For questions or more information, contact AIA at diversity@aia.org

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