Virtual internships provide global opportunities on college campuses
By Alison Treen, Senior Staff Writer
Monica Komer's Facebook and Twitter pages don't look like the accounts of most Miami students.
Pictures of protests and civil rights flood her screen, and almost all of the captions and comments are in Arabic. Although the junior International Studies and Journalism double major has studied Arabic for a few years, her social media isn't set up this way as a mere language-learning tool.
Komer is one student among many who is involved in the growing field of virtual internships. While the traditional idea of an internship usually involves shadowing or office work during the summer, virtual internships have become popular among students for their convenience and opportunities.
Komer is a Virtual Student Foreign Service (VSFS) eIntern for the U.S. Department of State's Embassy in Bahrain. She spends about six hours a week monitoring social media to gather current events to share with her boss, a Foreign Service Officer at the Embassy who writes the annual human rights report for the country.
To stay up-to-date with current events in Bahrain, Komer reads state newspapers, follows international human rights organizations and has separate Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts for her research where she follows the small, Middle-Eastern country's activists.
She also has to use a fake name to avoid possible political consequences, as Bahrain is a monarchy that does not tolerate political autonomy.
Komer said this gives meaning to her work.
"If it wasn't for people like me, nobody would know that this person got arrested or beaten or something," Komer said. "It's nice to feel like you're doing something meaningful."
While Komer loves her work, she said she was not always so sure about it.
"I didn't know what to expect," she said. "It was probably the first virtual internship I'd ever heard of before and I just went for it. I was a little nervous at first; I think I was expecting the worst, but it really hasn't been too much of a transition once I started the internship."
Komer cited many benefits of her nine-month internship, especially the flexibility. Because her internship is entirely online, besides a weekly phone call to her boss, she is able to balance schoolwork and the internship, even while she studies abroad next semester.
"You can do [a virtual internship] from wherever, you can do the work at your own time, and it's a good networking tool without having to go anywhere," she said.
Komer also said the expense, or lack thereof, is another bonus. While VSFS eInterns are unpaid, they do not lose money by participating. Traditional internships on the other hand, even unpaid ones, usually require some financial input including transportation, housing and meals.
Although virtual internships are convenient, they also come with drawbacks.
Komer, who also had a traditional internship in Washington, D.C., said that one of the largest contrasts between her former and current internships is the face-to-face aspect.
"It might be more difficult to get that personal connection so you have to reach out to make sure you are," she said in regards to virtual internships.
This is likely the most striking difference between traditional and virtual internships, but Gabriele Bechtel, director of Miami's Professional Writing department, expanded further.
"There is no immediate work environment, which means the intern may have a very sketchy or even distorted idea of the environment that exists at the other end of the line," she said. "Interns may experience stress and frustration especially when there are communication problems."
However, Bechtel also acknowledged the benefits of digital experience.
"[Virtual internships] can help build good online communication skills that are vital in many areas because a lot of the work people do today is being remotely done,"
she said. "Online communication skills are needed in many areas, including consulting and other client-based work."
She also added that self-discipline, professional work ethic and computer skills are important assets that a virtual intern may develop through his or her experience.
"Overall, I think a virtual internship is something worth trying out, provided the intern works with a reputable and experienced company and is not a complete novice in internet communication, and it seems like a good way to find out whether one is made for this kind of work or not," she said.
Komer said her internship has definitely helped her in terms of her future, and predicts that the popularity of virtual internships