5 Ways to Create an Unforgettable (And Inexpensive) Internship Program

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Looking for a few ways to make your internship program a success? It’s easy to get an internship inferiority complex when you look at some of the amazing perks and benefits that other organizations offer, like all expenses paid trips to San Francisco, sumo tournaments, and salaries that are higher than what many full-time employees make at other companies, to name just a few. But it turns out that you don’t need to have a huge budget to make a big impact on your interns.

Here a few techniques that worked for us here at AfterCollege. Just keep in mind that we’re a small company, so it was easy for us to include everyone in every activity—and you’ll see from some of the interns’ comments below that this really helped foster a sense of community and belonging. But you may need to make adjustments depending on the size of your organization and budget.

Weekly Breakfast

Exactly what it sounds like: round up some breakfast fixin’s like bagels, cream cheese, fresh fruit, cereal, pastries, etc. This can really be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like it to be. You can blend up smoothies/green juices, grill up pancakes or French toast, or set up a build-your-own breakfast burrito station.

Time involved: It really depends on your ingredients and group size. The entire process can be as quick as running out and grabbing a box of bagels and cream cheese, or as complicated as placing and coordinating deliveries or setting up and cleaning special equipment.

Cost: Varies depending on your organization and how fancy you decide to get. Allow around $2–$7 per person.

Tips for Success: Always plan the breakfast for the same day each week (we had a lot of success with doing it every Monday). If you provide breakfast on random days, people will probably grab their own croissant or bagel on the way into the office, but the continuity helps (mostly) eliminate that. It’s great to encourage some mingling and maybe let employees hang out and eat together for a bit. (Hint: We found that puzzles and games were a great way to help shy interns and employees get to know each other with minimal awkwardness. This book also helps.)

Lunch & Learns

The premise is simple: You choose a speaker or a panel of speakers, give them a list of questions or a topic, schedule an hour over lunch one day, and invite your interns and other employees to participate.

Time involved: About one hour for the lunch and learn itself, 15–20 minutes if you need to set up a projector, screen, etc., and about 30 minutes to organize the schedule and prep the presenters.

Cost: Varies, depending on the size of your company and internship program. Allow about $10–$15 per person at each meal.

Tips for success: You can create the lunch and learns around specific departments (e.g. marketing, engineering) or projects (e.g. how you handled a website redesign or product launch). This approach helps your interns get to know your entire business and interact with people they might not have otherwise met.

Another approach is to focus on a certain skill or professional development topic (HTML, how to create a PowerPoint presentation), which has the benefit of giving interns skills that will benefit them now and throughout their careers.

Depending on the length of your internship program, you can survey the interns about their interests and adjust the presentations accordingly. After one or two sessions, you’ll probably start getting people who are begging you to present as well.

What the interns said: “Lunch & Learns were really fun. It was super interesting listening to all the coworkers’ stories about their past work experiences and learning how they got to the position they were in today. I would have never learned that much about my coworkers if it weren’t for the Lunch & Learns.”

–Austin Pomerantz

Austin Giants smiling

Lunch & Learns were great because we really got to know the people in our office. Not only did it help us to see how all the pieces of this company come together to make it work, but we also got to learn cool tidbits about other employees we’d probably never hear in everyday conversation.”

–Kellen McKillop

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Job Shadowing Sessions

For a lot of interns and recent graduates, their time at your organization will help them discover what they don’t like as much as what they do like. I’m not saying that your interns are going to hate their time at your company, but let’s say that they realize that the focus of their internship is not the type of work they’d like to pursue. A job shadowing program gives interns the chance to learn more about your business and organization and discover what other people are doing on a daily basis.

Plus, during day-to-day business, it’s easy for full-time employees to get stuck in what they’re doing, so they may unintentionally ignore interns.

The specifics can vary, but generally job shadowing involves having an intern spend a set amount of time with an employee and learning about one particular aspect of their job. For example, an intern might sit in with a salesperson as they make a sales call or with the social media manager as they write and schedule social media posts for the day.

Time involved: About an hour for the intern and the person being shadowed and a few minutes for the intern’s direct manager to coordinate with the mentor.

Cost: None, other than the employees’ time away from their regular work.

Tips for success: Former AfterCollege intern Shane Zackery wrote a full post on this topic, which you can find here. Shane’s main suggestions include making shadowing optional for both parties, sharing success stories, and emphasizing the intrinsic value of the experience (in other words, don’t force interns to write reports or give presentations on the shadowing experience—just let the shadowing experience stand alone).

What the interns said: “The thing that I appreciated the most about AfterCollege’s shadowing program was the fact that the shadowing was completely optional. This meant that I wasn’t going to be forced into learning about things that I didn’t care about.”

–Shane Zackery

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Off-site Activities

You don’t have to stay in the office for all your intern-focused activities, and in fact, it can be exciting for everyone to get out of the office for a bit. The possibilities for field trips are endless, but a lot of them will depend on the location of your office and the size of your company. We invited the entire office to go to the movies, a baseball game, and a day at the Exploratorium (a very cool, interactive museum here in San Francisco).

Time involved: Three to five hours for the actual scavenger hunt, one to two hours to plan the course and the challenges.

Cost: $15 per person for a one-day San Francisco public transportation pass; $7 per person for movie tickets; $22 per person for Exploratorium tickets

Tips for success: Don’t be afraid to get creative! One of the most successful field trips was a scavenger hunt organized by one of our employees. We randomly drew names to divide up into teams, and we were given a time limit, a list of neighborhoods, and tasks to accomplish in each area. For example, on Haight Street, we needed to find (and snap a photo with) a street musician, a rasta accessory, and the iconic legs that jut out of the Piedmont Boutique’s window. We didn’t have to accomplish the tasks in a specific order, so it was really fun to reconnect at the end of the day and learn how each time strategized and approached the challenges.

What the interns said: “The off-site company activities were awesome this year. Both the scavenger hunt and baseball game were great experiences where we got to bond with coworkers outside of the work area. I never expected to partake in any activities like this when I first started working and it really added to my internship experience.”

—Austin Pomerantz

These activities are a necessity! I think that what makes AfterCollege such a great product and wonderful place to work is the fact that we WANT to come in and be here every day. That has a lot to do with the fact that we enjoy each other’s company. Through activities like the movie day or baseball games, I was able to build relationships with other AC employees so that we were not just coworkers, but friends. That’s what made my choice to stay on when offered a full-time position easy.”

–Kellen McKillop

“The Scavenger Hunt was the best time I’ve had at AfterCollege. We scavenged for various items and landmarks, but what I really found was the bond between my coworkers and me.”

–Simon Luppescu

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Intern Presentations

Each of our interns completed a self-directed project in addition to their regular work duties. At the end of the internship term, they gave a ten-minute presentation to share the details of their project. This was also an opportunity for employees to ask the interns about their overall experience.

Time involved: 10 minutes for each intern’s presentation, 15–20 minutes to set up the projector and equipment beforehand.

Cost: Nothing if you arrange the presentations on their own. About $5–$15 per person if you cater breakfast or lunch as well.

Tips for success: Holding the presentations right before lunch on the interns’ second to last day is a good tactic so the final day of their internship isn’t tainted by their pre-presentation nerves. We made this the final Lunch & Learn session so we always ended up with a good turnout. Encourage employees to ask questions about the interns’ projects, the internship experience in general, and their overall impressions of your company. You can learn a lot this way!

What the interns said: I’m not going to lie. This was scarier than I thought it would be. I had experienced everything I was talking about first-hand, so I thought it’d be easy to share. It wasn’t. Putting my work into words was difficult but was a challenge that helped me to quantify what I had done as well as learn to present to my peers and superiors.”

–Kellen McKillop

Food for thought: Our rock star office manager took care of a lot of the nuts and bolts (ordering the food, setting up equipment, etc.), and a few other people stepped in to handle other tasks (Kellen planned the scavenger hunt and I organized the Lunch & Learn lineup). Talk with various people on your team and throughout the office to gauge their interest and availability to pitch in and make your program a success.

Have any other tips for creating a memorable and meaningful internship program? Let us know in the comments section below.

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