Mericris Neyra outside of The Queen's Medical Center Photo: David Croxford

21st Century Internships

May, 2015

Landing a quality internship is almost as important to a young college graduate’s career as a diploma. For many companies, federal law and a series of national legal settlements have forced them to rethink their strategy of using unpaid interns as a pool of free labor. We explain how the internship landscape in Hawaii is changing for both sides.

Experience Trumps Pay
Neyra says she underwent a rigorous application process for her internship – Queen’s only accepts 10 candidates each year. During her 360 hours in the internship, she says, the best aspects were the mentorship she received and the skills she learned. “I thought it was great that we got paid, but even if we didn’t, I’d still have wanted to be a part of this program,” she says. “I think a lot of my classmates felt the same way.”

As a college intern “is the only time in their life when they can jump from company to company and not be penalized.”


—Rick Varley, Shidler College of Business

The cooperative education program, a 23-year-old partnership between the UH School of Nursing and Queen’s, is a win-win program, says Mimi Harris, Queen’s director of patient care consulting services. Harris says there are now more new nursing grads than positions available, so Queen’s motivation is not simply to find new recruits. “We continue to be committed to this program at this point for one primary reason and that is to give back to the nursing profession,” she says. “This opportunity is so beneficial for (students) in their professional growth and development.” Harris says the hospital ends up hiring about 60 percent of its co-op interns.

Neyra says the program gave her experience that her textbooks couldn’t. “In nursing school, you’re lucky if you can (practice) tube feeding on a patient or hang IV medication,” she says. “With the co-op, we’d work just like a nurse, 12-hour shifts three times a week.”

The internship also confirmed she had made the right career decision. “I have enjoyed all my clinical experiences in nursing school and, because of the co-op, I know that nursing is the career for me.”

Many students are willing to forgo pay for the right internship experience. Kagawa says several students have repeated their internships with the IT-focused Transformation Internship Program, while five former students are now state employees. “It seems to be representative of the interest and that there are a lot of opportunities to work with the state,” she says. “It gives them exposure to government.”15 May Internship2

For 20-year-old UH junior Marilyn Bui, who is studying economics and psychology, her seven-month internship with the Honolulu mayor’s Office of Economic Development added depth to the concepts she learned in college, while giving her a deeper insight into government. Bui is paid $10 an hour for roughly 12 hours per week. It’s less than what she makes at her part-time, on-campus job, but, “For me, it wasn’t the financial incentive, it was the experience,” that drew her in, she says. “I’m hoping to understand more about the city. I get to see a lot of what Honolulu does to help promote tourism.”

Bui is one of the city and county’s Pookela Fellows, started in 2008 by then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann. This year, the city extended the internship, based on student feedback, says Debby Nishimura, program coordinator and HR specialist for the city. “It can be difficult for students to find work right away,” she says, “so we can give them work experience for a longer term and allow them to gain more experience.”

Bui interns in the department that secures and prepares grants for city events, plans them and meets with visiting delegates alongside Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

“I work a lot on reviewing the grants and drafting contracts and measuring the success of the events,” Bui says. “Every day it’s something different.”

That’s how Rick Varley, the director of internships and career development at the Shidler College of Business, wants his students to view the internship experience: absorbing new skills with a multifaceted approach. He says it’s not uncommon for many of the college’s students to have multiple internships, though that’s not a requirement to graduate. “In reality, in the classroom they’re not learning what all these career paths feel like,” he says. “It’s the only time in their life when they can jump from company to company and not be penalized.”

Each semester, Varley’s office helps place about 200 students in internship programs; it currently partners with 120 companies, 95 percent of which are in Hawaii, he says. For example, First Insurance, one of the college’s established business partners, has a $100,000 scholarship endowment and, in 2007, helped establish a distinguished professorship for risk management faculty.

“The business community is relatively small here,” says Varley. “We expect our students when they graduate to find quality work, so in order to do so they need legitimate, quality experiences.”

Internships Critical for Budding Careers
Students know the value of internships – paid or unpaid. “I feel like now it’s so competitive” to land a good job, Bui says. “Everyone has a college degree, a lot of people do well in school, and so the only thing that can differentiate you and make you stand out from others is internships and those experiences.”15 May Internship1

Sora says the quality of an internship makes a big difference. “I think students from this generation get a lot of messages from parents and families, from the media and the university of the importance of internships,” she says. Instead, she feels that students should focus on the quality of internships rather than on how many they secure.

Stephens says she encourages the interns at First Insurance to savor their experience and take on multiple internships, if the fit is right.

“Internships are priceless. It provides direct insight into the company culture and the type of people who make up an organization,” she says. “During the internship, they should be assessing if the career is a fit and if it’s the type of place where they’d want to put their roots down.”

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