Like many students in their senior year, Brisa Bassett wondered what the transition from school to the world of business after graduation would be like. Everything she had done for the past few years was in preparation for work in the field of accounting, but the real world was very different from university life. The thought of stepping into that unknown was intimidating.
Her outlook changed last fall, however, when she and five of her fellow students got the unique chance at a trial-run in the real world. That’s when they were enrolled in the inaugural class of the Fall Business internship program in the School of Business.
A School/ Community Partnership
Since 2012, the School of Business has offered internships each Spring semester, with the generous support of the Smullin Foundation. In October, 2015, the College of Professional Studies asked a few longtime local business partners to reflect on the internship program, including what works and what might need improvement.
“One thing they asked us for was access to the program year-round,” said Denise Vanden Bos, Director of Project Development for the College of Professional Studies. “So businesses that had long-term projects they wanted interns to work on wouldn’t have to wait until the following Spring to continue on to completion.”
In response, the School of Business partnered with the Smullin Foundation to launch a small Fall Internship class in 2016 to see if offering year-round internships would work.
The program selected six interns from applications received. These students worked on individual projects in three local small businesses: Resolution Care, Humfresh and DBS Analytics. Their projects were tailored to the strengths and needs of the businesses and students.
At Eureka-based Resolution Care, Andrew Cook gathered data for a financial dashboard that helps the business look at cashflow and use of critical resources over time. Laura Rice’s project was to assist with daily accounting functions including creating internal control processes. She also assisted Resolution Care in getting their official B Corp Certification, meeting rigorous standards of environmental and social accountability, performance, and transparency.
At DBS Analytics in Arcata, Amanda Morrettini prepared financial projections to help identify options for financing business expansion. She researched best practices for capturing financial data and settled on a template from the Small Business Development Center in Eureka. It still wasn’t quite right, however, so she modified it to better reflect the accounting practices at the small business.
Also at DBS Analytics, Brisa Bassett analyzed specific aspects of their customer base.
“I looked at customer retention, and what factors were most likely to affect it.” said Brisa. “I was able to give them information on percentage of returning customers, and on the impact of some of their programs. When next semester starts, they’ll have another intern who’ll use my data to look at their marketing program.”
At Humfresh in Fortuna, Nicole Merrill provided basic bookkeeping services while creating useful tools such as an income statement and a template to track critical resources. Lauren Digison developed inventory and production line systems. One result of her work was that Humfresh now knows exactly how much of each ingredient is needed for orders, thus increasing efficiency.
Hands-on Experience Dispels Stereotypes
Students worked on their projects both on-site and off. The work at the business offices was invaluable for developing a new understanding of how business is conducted and breaking stereotypes about what a small business environment might be like. Students interacted with staff and leadership in informal and formal settings, from the mundane to management level.
At Resolution Care, Andrew was invited to observe regular weekly planning meetings. The experience changed his perspective on how business is conducted. “It also removed some of my fear about working in the real world,” he said.
Students found out that the environment was not the “cutthroat” daily atmosphere that they feared.
“I was surprised at the friendly atmosphere and the level of comradery on the job,” said Brisa. “They talked to each other like friends.”
The flexible schedule was also important, especially to Nicole, who has two young children. “I worked on-site a few hours a week,” she said, “But then I was able to work on the project when I could find the time. That was crucial for me.”
Translating theory into practice.
Interns understood that what they were doing was important work, and that it had value. From finance to marketing to accounting, students directly applied the skills and theory they’d learned in class to complete their projects.
In the process, they learned some very practical skills. “I became more proficient at the excel program, “said Andrew. “And I learned a lot of business terminology that’s relevant to my major.”
Students also used what they knew to conduct research and find out more. In some cases, the research included connecting with other professionals in the community. For example, Amanda worked with the Small Business Development Center in Eureka and Nicole connected directly with the local accounting firm that worked with Humfresh.
“We got exposure to unfamiliar territory,” said Amanda. “Unlike school, there was no syllabus to follow. We had to be ready to adapt to meet changing circumstances. It’s unpredictable.”
One benefit often mentioned by the interns was its effect on their self-confidence, especially in regard to their own ability to meet and exceed expectations. “I was very nervous going into the internship,” Brisa said. “But the experience really built my confidence in myself.”
Nicole, who was also unsure initially, concurred. “I was afraid they would ask me to do something I wasn’t capable of doing,” she said. “But I was able to complete the tasks required and more. I have a lot more confidence in my ability to figure things out.”
Andrew spoke of his new confidence in his own ability to meet the demands of the business world after graduation. “A lot of people are super scared about what’s next after they graduate, “he said. “But I’m not, because of this program. I feel so privileged to have had this access.”
The increased self-confidence was evident to others.
"One of the most rewarding experiences for me,” said Chris Gaines, Internship Coordinator for the School of Business, “Is witnessing the transformation of the students from the beginning to the end of the internship experience. In the beginning, many students are wary of their ability to add value to the business. In the end, students often surprise themselves with the tremendous value they can add to helping businesses solve real world challenges."
Making a Difference
Three of the six have secured jobs or job offers as a direct result of the internship. Lauren is now working at Humfresh, where she interned, and Nicole is working part time for their accounting firm. Lauren has received a job offer from Resolution Care, where she interned.
The interns all wholeheartedly endorsed the program, through which they made a positive impact on the businesses they served.
“I do believe we made a difference,” said Brisa. “At DBS Analytics, they didn’t have the time to do the things we did. Our work will help them choose the best financing alternatives, and give them a better handle on how to attract more new customers and keep the old ones.”
It was an experience they encourage other students to consider. “I am so glad to have had this opportunity,” said Andrew. “I was constantly learning through the entire process. It was the first time I’ve felt that all my work was really necessary and usable.”