In today's world, a college degree has the equivalent value of a high school diploma 20 years ago. It seems like everyone goes to college. Why not? It seems like a blast; it's a rite of passage; it's the best four years of your life, and it's the one last hoorah of your youth until the dreaded real world starts.
I never got the real college experience. For the most part, that's because I didn't really want one. I couldn't have been readier for the real world since the day I walked on campus. The parties, the sororities, the clubs and dorms -- none of that excited me.
I knew if I took part in the typical college experience, when I walked across a stage in my cap and gown four years later, I would be on the same playing field as the thousands of new graduates around me.
But I didn't want that.
Too many college graduates I knew were still waiting tables or filing papers, even years after the student loan payments started. They went to college, graduated and expected to get these amazing job offers, but hadn't even landed one interview. All that time and money didn't do anything for them; they were on their own and had no idea what to do.
I wanted to be ahead of the curve. I had an ambition that made sitting in a lecture hall torturous for me. So the first thing I did after settling in on campus was find myself an internship.
Here are 11 lessons I've learned from being a long-time intern:
1. A lot of internships are free labor for companies. It's up to you to decide if it's worth it.
I did not have a car during my first semester of college. I lived right next to campus and could walk everywhere I needed to go, so my parents didn't see the importance of me having one right away. So when I got an internship at the Charlotte Motor Speedway a few miles away from my apartment, it made things difficult. What made things even worse was the position required eight hours of work, three days a week, at absolutely no pay other than a stipend at the end of the term. But, I made it work.
I took a taxi some days, bribed my roommate with free food to drive me on others and eventually guilted co-workers into picking me up. Thinking back on it now, I don't know how, but I did it, on top of 15-credit hours during my first semester of college.
If it hadn't been for a few kind-hearted people on the staff offering me paid hours to work events after my internship day was over, I don't know how I would have afforded my life. It wasn't easy, but I was convinced it would be worth it, so I chose to do it anyway.
2. Interns are often disposable, but it doesn't mean you aren't a valuable professional.
I was heartbroken when my first internship ended. I thought for sure that all my hard work, eagerness to do even more work and positive attitude would have given the company reason to keep me around. But when the end of my internship period came, I returned my access badge.
I realize it was crazy for me to think they would have hired a college freshman right away, but I actually did think that was going to happen. Everyone kept telling me that the best part of internships was many of them turned into full-time jobs.
So, why couldn't mine become one? When it didn't happen, I was devastated. I felt like all that work had been for nothing. But in the following weeks, I realized that though I enjoyed my time there, that type of work wasn't really what I saw myself doing forever anyway. It would be more beneficial for me to find a new internship more relevant to my interests.
3. Internships are about testing the waters of particular fields of work, and it's important to figure out what careers you are and aren't interested in.
I quickly gathered my pride and went in search of another internship. I was majoring in public relations, so I wanted to find something in that field as opposed to sales, which was my previous internship. It didn't even take me two weeks to find my next opportunity.
This new internship (with a company I will leave unnamed) was a ton more work and more time-consuming, but I was just excited it was paid. It wasn't much, but at least it was something.
The problem was this company made me do the job of a full-time public relations representative for not just one, but three different clients. My employer was making out like a bandit getting so much free work for very little money by slapping the “internship” title on it.
4. Be cautious of how much advantage is being taken of you.
Luckily, it didn't take long for me to figure out I was being used. I was lucky enough to know some public relations representatives and was able to compare the work I was doing with their workloads. Every single one of them cautioned me to stick to my job description. The problem was, I didn't have one.
Upon confronting my boss, I was fed a strongly-worded raging lecture on respecting authority and being appreciative, then was suggested I find employment elsewhere. Though I had experienced another heartbreak professionally, I reminded myself that every learning experience was valuable and chalked it up to another well-learned lesson.
But, it did feel good when I found out this company folded a few months later.
5. There are such things as jobs that add more value to your life than any salary they could pay you.
Where I wound up next was interning for a company that changed my perspective on the professional world entirely. I was offered an opportunity to be the social media intern for a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race team. I knew right away that it would be the opportunity of a lifetime, but I had no way of knowing just how much that job was going to benefit my life.
What was supposed to be a summer internship ended up continuing on for nearly two years. On top of being an invaluable learning experience, it really was the most fun I have ever had working.
I was able to travel the country and went to Sonoma, California, Daytona Beach, Florida and Phoenix, Arizona. I worked directly with successful professional athletes, documenting moments of their careers that would leave a mark on history. I took part in meetings and presentations with some of the largest and most successful companies in world. I met and interacted with hundreds of fascinating people who followed the team's social media accounts. It gave me motivation to provide them with the very best content I could, and it made me really love my job.
Not every moment was perfect. I still made my rookie mistakes, got frustrated at times and had to do some daunting tasks I would rather not have done. But every morning, I woke up genuinely wanting to go to work. The good moments outweighed any slightly bad ones.
They became more than just my employers; they were my family. But unfortunately, I began taking it for granted.
6. Money is important, but don't let its monetary value diminish the value of other things that matter to you.
After a year and a half as the social media intern for this race team, I was starting to feel jaded. My responsibilities had definitely increased since I started, but my pay had not. I became more involved with my colleagues in the NASCAR industry and watched as they got promotions, salary raises and opportunities. I began to desire even more.
I knew the amount of work I was doing was not much less than what they were doing, so why wasn't I being offered a full-time job? I began to let my ambition and eagerness take a negative turn toward entitlement and cockiness.
7. Don't let positive steps toward your goal convince you that you can skip over other important responsibilities.
I cut back even more on hours at school, convincing myself that the more time I dedicated to my internship, the more likely they would move me into a full-time position. So, where I was focusing on the assumption that my hard work would pay off, I was putting off getting my degree. Unfortunately, the recognition I hoped for was not there. Any hints I thought I was dropping toward wanting a full-time position were being ignored.
As time went on, I became convinced that no matter how many hours I worked or how much responsibility I took on, my employers were not going to raise my title or my pay. But even more so, I convinced myself that I deserved that to happen. I was scared of being taken advantage of again, so I started looking for other opportunities elsewhere.
Things were good, and I was on the right track, but it's amazing how quickly a few accomplishments can give you a falsely based ego.
8. Ambition is a great quality, but it can be a weakness.
I walked away from the best thing I had going for myself because I let my ambition get the best of me. In retrospect, I quickly realized how greedy of a mistake I had made. Had I not chosen to leave that internship, I highly doubt I would have been asked to. I could have continued that great opportunity until I completed my degree. Then, maybe I would have deserved that full-time job I was after.
Looking back now, I totally lost sight of the responsibilities I needed to focus on to get me where I wanted to go. Soon, the focus became entirely on career opportunities and gradually less on school until I reached a point where I was only taking six credit hours at a time.
9. All of the internships in the world cannot make up for a college degree.
I could go on and on for hours about how completely ridiculous the value society puts on college degrees really is. To me, it's a money-making machine that thrives off the population of young adults who either have the financial means to afford college or the lack of knowledge to know how much it is really going to cost them.
In my opinion, what college actually does for students is nowhere near the amount of money it actually costs. I became resentful toward the “higher education industry,” as I called it, and went on a mission to prove I could get a job without that expensive piece of paper. Three more internships later, I didn't and I won't.
10. David (the intern) doesn't always beat Goliath (the real world), but that doesn't mean there isn't reward in going to battle anyway.
Unfortunately, I learned a hard lesson here. I'm not going to change the importance society has put on a college degree. Yes, internships are valuable, but they don't give you a leg-up on the competition unless it's paired with a cap and gown. If I'm not willing to change my career goals, I will have to go back to college.
The good news is I'm only a year from graduating. But the bad news is I have found myself in a set of uncontrollable circumstances that are making it very difficult for my family and I to pay for me to finish. I have moments when the stress of it all makes me angry over how so many people have to make money to afford to go to college, but can't get good jobs because they aren't finished college.
It can be a lose-lose situation. Even so, I'm not letting everything I've done so far go to waste.
11. There really is no surefire way to land that dream job.
You can get the internships, but you'll probably struggle to afford ramen noodles for every meal. You can get your degree, but you may still wind up doing a ridiculous amount work for minimal pay for a couple years. No matter what route you take, the real world is about learning who you are.
My path has been difficult and financially straining, but valuable nonetheless. I learned more about myself by taking these crazy chances than anything I would have learned in a lecture hall. The mistakes you make in this quarter-life time period are just as important as the accomplishments.
Sometimes it won't be easy to convince yourself of it, but hard work always has some type of reward, even if it's just about feeling good about yourself. My advice is to go to college and pick a major that won't bore you to death for four years. Whether or not it's the career path you want, the goal is to graduate, and you're going to need to stay interested.
Take at least one internship, preferably two, and don't have any expectations of them besides learning. It may be awful, or it may be a dream come true. It may turn into a full-time job, or it may not. Focus on enjoying the experience, and don't lose sight of your responsibilities.
But more than anything, don't let even the biggest setbacks outweigh the work you've put into the life you're building for yourself. In the real world, there are so many unanticipated things that will throw you off whatever plan you may have for yourself. Maybe you won't get that job offer; maybe you'll invest in a company that makes you billions of dollars, or maybe you'll find yourself in a financial crisis you have to dig your way out of. Maybe you don't get in to that medical school you've always had your sights set on, or maybe you will and you'll realize you hate it.
That's what the real world is -- totally out of your control. If college is about preparing you for the real world, it's better for you to find that out sooner than later.
You have to make money, but you also need to focus on living a happy life. Never settle until you have found a way to do both, even if it takes longer than expected.