What makes an excellent intern? Insights from the TFAS Staff

By: Emily Schroen ’19, International Affairs Coordinator

Interns are a pretty common feature of D.C. life in the summer. If you walk out in front of the Capitol Hill office buildings or through the Metro during rush hour you’re bound to see hundreds of college-aged students shuffling off to work. Some will wear suits and badges while others will be dressed casually with backpacks. It can be exciting to be in a place with so much youthful ambition. In that morning rush of D.C. interns heading into the office, how do you make yourself stand out?

Since working at TFAS I’ve had the opportunity to observe several of our program directors in action as they recruit, place our students at internship sites and support students in various programs. Every once in a while I’ll hear someone say, “This person is going places!” or share their students’ accomplishments with a coworker. There is a thrill to working with a student that shows great potential to succeed.

I wanted to know exactly what makes an intern stand out to these directors and their supervisors beyond what’s written on their resumes. So, I went around the office and interviewed several of our staff members to learn what kind of students they love to work with and the qualities of excellent interns. Some of their answers may surprise you!

After speaking with several TFAS staff members, humility came to the forefront as a common characteristic of a great intern. Many TFAS students are used to being the smartest person in their classes, and sometimes that may be true, but the wisest of them are aware of how much they don’t know.

In regards to humility, Public Policy and Economics Program Director, Laura Cusack, commented, “Be humble and know that you have a lot to learn. A lot of younger people have learned the self-confidence thing, but it isn’t backed up with anything. You can be both humble and confident if your confidence is rooted in a secure sense of self-worth.” You won’t be able to learn anything, much less leave a good impression, if you aren’t willing to acknowledge the advice and direction of those with more experience than you.

For the Leadership and the American Presidency Program Coordinator, Eliza Miller, humility manifests as a willingness to do various different tasks without complaining. She told me that one of her favorite quotes came from Ben Woodward, a career + industry exploration panelist the Leadership Institute. He said simply, “You’re never too good to take out the trash.” Sometimes as an intern, you will be asked to do tedious, but essential, administrative tasks like updating spreadsheets or emptying the paper shredder. Acting as though these jobs are beneath you will leave a sour impression.

Business and Government Relations Program Director, Lainey Carlton, emphasized how humility paired with respect makes a great intern. Humility is rooted in the understanding that you don’t know everything and have things to learn, but also in how you treat others. Lainey asserted that supervisors, advisors and coworkers appreciate when they are treated, “less transactionally and more relationally.” Even a simple, “How is your day going?” in a business email goes a long way to show that your relationship with this person is more than a business transaction.

Similarly, interns can show their respect in the thoughtfulness of their communication with their supervisors. Lainey said, “Don’t just give one-word answers to questions. This makes it hard to gauge your interests and makes you less memorable when you’re coordinating with your supervisor or TFAS advisors. Take the time to thoughtfully answer questions and be specific in your interests.” Doing so will establish a positive relationship and help you respectfully tailor your internship experience.

Colin Parks, director of the TFAS International Affairs Program Track, has developed a concise philosophy for how an intern can stand out. Unsurprisingly, humility is a central focus, he says, “the best dispositional qualities of a phenomenal intern can be summarised as the “3 H’s”: happiness, humility and honesty”. Of course, no one has to be happy all of the time, but Colin said that being grateful for the opportunities granted to them can help shape an intern into a “happy warrior.” To put this into perspective, Colin admits that there is an opportunity cost for hosting an intern, paid or unpaid. An organization is under no obligation to afford this opportunity that many will never be able to access. In giving you strong work experience to bolster your resume they’re paying forward the help many of their employees received as emerging professionals.

Colin’s understanding of humility largely reflects that of the other program directors, but with a twist on ambition. He states, “sometimes the ambitions of accomplished students can act as “blinders” that narrow their perspective.” In doing so they inadvertently push aside others and adhere to a “winner takes all” approach that can negatively characterize D.C. culture. Colin advises that it’s important to treat people kindly.

Treating others well feeds into the honesty component of Colin’s 3 H’s. He commented that burning bridges or lying will catch up to you quickly because “people are connected in ways that aren’t always readily apparent.” D.C. is a small town and protecting and maintaining your good reputation is essential to long-term career success. No individual or company expects perfection, so owning up to a mistake rather than attempting to lie about it is important for establishing trust and a good rapport.

Incredible interns come through TFAS’ doors with a myriad of academic, professional, and personal experiences. Some have already developed networking skills and excellent resumes, while others are only beginning their professional development journey. Having an excellent GPA or work experience is great, but what will truly shape the impression you leave is how you present yourself and treat those around you. Be humble, be kind, be honest and be willing to do the tasks presented to you. Not only will you come away with new skills, but strong professional relationships that will serve you in the future. So be brave and know that your TFAS staff is cheering you on! Your reputation is in your hands.