Like most students, I also planned to go back home (India) for the summer after freshman year. But, I wanted to spend my summer constructively and get some real world experience related to my major. So, last spring, I decided to do a co-op and started looking for potential internship opportunities in India for the summer. (This way I got to spend the holidays with my family while also getting real world exposure).
I did my co-op at Interactive Avenues, a digital marketing agency under IPG Mediabrands. During the course of the 8-week long co-op, I was associated with the Creative Director (my mentor/supervisor). I spent a lot of time shadowing different departments (tech, creative, copy, client-servicing) to understand how they interact, communicate and work closely together. The co-op gave me a lot of insight into the day-to-day work of a digital agency under tight deadlines as opposed to easier and longer deadlines for college projects. Interactive Avenues has a diverse customer base and I received opportunities to work on projects for big brands such as Gionee, Bausch and Lomb, Trident, Micromax and Tensports. My mentor made sure I got to work on a diverse set of projects from simple banners, social media creatives to website/UI/UX design and interactions. I even had the opportunity to work on smaller independent projects for the company, which is great for someone who just finished their first year at college.
Personally, it was an enriching experience that gave me confidence in my abilities as a student and as a valuable member of the creative team. Moreover, I made some great connections and received a lot of advice from the experts in the industry. This co-op experience brought clarity in my mind that I would want more exposure in core UI/UX work. For the future, I hope that i get opportunities to work at different companies such as a small boutique design agency to have an understanding of the kind of work I would enjoy doing after my degree.
Here are the key takeaways from my experience:
1. Start early
Cooperative Education (Co-op) or internships are required by 80% of majors here at RIT. My major (New Media Design) is one of few that does not mandate co-ops or internships, but students are still highly encouraged to take up co-ops/internships. Students do not usually do a co-op the summer after their freshman year, but It's never too early to start putting yourself out there and get experience!
2. Real world experience
Co-op/internship gives you the opportunity to get a real world experience in your field of study and apply what you're learning while at RIT. They are a small preview of how work life will be after college.
3. Basic life skills
Apart from learning and experiencing things related to your major, you learn a lot of basic life skills like networking, work ethics, presenting yourself in a formal setting/workplace, teamwork and collaboration... Even if your internship ends up not being all that you expected, there is always something you can take away from the experience.
4. Define your Career path
It will help further define your career path - This co-op showed me that I am learning all the relevant skills that are being used in the industry, and brought further clarity about what I want to do after my degree.
5. Don't set your expectations too high
Companies usually prefer some kind of experience before they choose an intern and most internship programs target juniors and seniors. This doesn't mean that you won't be able to find any internships; it just means that you might have to start at a smaller company first.
6. Career fairs and Career Services
RIT holds a career fair each semester. Though career fairs are geared up more towards juniors and seniors, I encourage freshmen to attend it as well. Even if you are not looking for a co-op/internship, attending the career fair gives you practice and a preview of what to expect when you actually go looking for one.
RIT Office of career services and co-op is a great resource to prepare for Career fairs and interviews. They help you build your resume, elevator speech, and also offer services such as workshops, mock interviews.
7. Conduct informational interviews
A lot of times, students (especially freshmen) may be interested in an industry but know few details about it. You should use your winter break/free time to set up informational interviews (with seniors, professors, experts in the industry, recruiters) to become better informed. Informational interviews are also a great way to make connections and network. (and if they lead to an internship, then nothing like it!)