I Had an Internship (Almost) Every Year From 15 to 21, and Here's Everything I Know About How to Make the Most of the Experience

I'm grateful for every stint. Especially the way-over-my-head, can-barely-stand-to-look-back-on-it ones.
Publish date:
June 11, 2014
career, work, interns, internships

Depending on who you are measuring me against, I grew up in a lower-middle-class family (if you were comparing me to the median income at my high school, say, filled with rich kids) or an upper-middle-class family (if you were comparing me to the median income at my middle school, filled with not-rich kids). Overall, I think it's fair to say I am a solidly middle-class kid who has a few wealthy family members hanging off somewhere in the distance from a branch of the tree.

I talk about my background because I think that to say "I've been doing internships since I was 15" spells out a whole hell of a lot of privilege. I realize I had the luxury to be learning a trade instead of needing to take a consistently paying minimum-wage gig. (Although some of these internships were also paid. The Washington Post paid a sick salary -- $845 a week in 1997 if I remember correctly which was a lot of money for a 21-year-old straight out of school.)

I feel very grateful I did have these experiences, and I think there's a lot of truth to the idea that there are "codes" to how privileged kids are indoctrinated into the working world that kids with less privilege just don't get. This piece will share some of what I learned for anyone who is interested in "Matrix"-style vacuuming any knowledge I might have out of my brain. I'll try to go through every single experience I had, starting at 15 to pinpoint different things I learned.


My age: 15

The year: 1991

The internship: The Scripps Clinic, doing research with Merrill Mitler, PhD, on meth's affect on narcolepsy patients.

I was awarded this internship through a competitive contest where I wrote an essay. I decided to focus mine on the ethical implications of genetic engineering, and I used a little writing trick I've used throughout my life, which is a strong kicker phrase that invokes opposites. If you have a strong last line and you've kept the person reading throughout your entire piece, you can almost cheat that you've just written something incredibly profound because the person is left with an "a-ha" feeling at the conclusion. Kind of like how Wes Anderson cheats emotions with music soundtracks in his movies. So my last line was something along the lines of "We need to continue to put the moral issues raised by genetic engineering into the light so that ethics do not get left in the dark."

The funny thing about this whole experience was that I literally got this science internship because I was a good writer, not a good scientist. So I had Imposter Complex in spades. I've always been okay at science, but not amazing. I think there's a certain kind of brain that really succeeds at science, and mine is much more associative and creative. I have to kind of slap myself to stay focused, and I'm more interested in things like "Story Truths" (the essence of the heart of the story versus the reality of it, think: David Sedaris embellishment) rather than empirical double-blind-placebo-controlled truths.

I remember driving up to La Jolla and looking at EEG's and ECG's and not knowing what the F I was doing. I fell asleep one time on top of a pile of papers outlining narcoleptic data. That was ironic. My favorite part of the day was putting on the radio to the alternative station and listening to that. I suppose that was probably telling.

The lesson: Don't be afraid to make a fool of yourself. I still think back on what a disappointment I must have been to those researchers, but all those little lessons and humiliations and embarrassments I experienced made me a little less afraid to try the next thing. As silly as that sounds, that increasing level of courage is invaluable. Just say yes, as Stephen Colbert says. Even if you don't grow up to do whatever thing you are interning in, you'll come out the wiser. (It was also fun to track down Dr. Mitler for a story I was working on for the New York Post a few years ago and quote him in the piece. Circle of life!)


Age: 16

Year: 1992

Internship: American Cancer Society

Again, I won this through a writing contest. Like so many scams in life, I failed upward: I had precedents or "verifieds" on my resume showing that this was not my first rodeo. So in this case, it was my humdinger of a Scripps Clinic internship the year before. Ha! Little did they know.

This internship was even more terrifying because I was doing things like running gels and using the microfuge machine. It was kind of rad, though, now that I think back. Science really is incredibly cool and interesting, especially working in a lab. Still, my favorite part of the day was doing the Jumble from the newspaper during my lunch break. I would report back on this fact to my parents, and they just sort of looked at me with sadness.

I had to write a paper at the end of the summer which I bet any scientist would say had about as much to do with Portuguese politics as it did with fighting cancer. I was lost. There is something exhilarating about that, though. Something I wish I would do more nowadays, actually, with things like say, exercise. I hate running for precisely this reason -- because I suck at it. I don't like things I'm not good at. But you'll never learn if you don't force yourself into these incredibly uncomfortable zones.

Lesson: Don't be afraid to be completely over your head. I mean, don't masquerade around as a neurosurgeon and kill someone. But when you're younger, you are absolutely going to fall on your face. Make it through. Keep going. Even if the end result is a total sham of a scientific paper. At least you did it. There's something in that. The discipline of finishing. If you learned one good thing out of the experience (even: Hey, I can make myself do things that are really uncomfortable for me to do), then it was incredibly worthwhile.


Age: 17

Year: 1993

Internship: Oh you know what? I lied. I didn't have an internship every year. Because my final summer before college I think I just made out with my boyfriend and watched "Kids in the Hall."

Lesson: Live. Have a life.


Age: 18

Year: 1994

Internship: Mainstream, a disability magazine

They didn't even have an internship program, but the woman I was babysitting for at the time was freelancing occasionally for them and asked the editors if they would consider taking me on. They agreed. I remember working on a big feature on service animals (the biggest piece I had ever done in my life at that point) and somehow stumbling into an interview with someone who had a significant role in disabilities advocacy in the White House.

I answered the phone like an unprofessional dope, "Oh hi. Yeah. So. I'm just an intern. Um. Can you hold on." When I got off the phone, the woman running the magazine chided me with disgust for acting a fool with this important resource, and I never forgot that. (Even though years later, I again got chided for not answering the phone, "Washington Post, this is Mandy" but instead just saying, "Hello.")

So, professionalism is important. "xoJane, this is Mandy." See.

Lesson: Even if you feel like a screwup kid who's looking forward to just drinking Boone's Strawberry Farm on a suspension bridge with your friends later on that night, during the day when you are in an internship capacity, fake it. Channel the shoulder-padded version of what you imagine a grown-up to be, and do that. Also, don't be afraid to ask dumb questions. Say, "Hey, can I get a coffee with you sometime and ask you some questions?" Then when you're there, ask things like, "How can I improve? How can I be more professional?" You will get an answer. Trust. Have a thick skin, too. This part took me until I was about 34, but hey, eventually I got one.


Age: 19

Year: 1995

Internship: Illinois Entertainer (and entertainment editor at The Daily Northwestern)

Oh man. Did I party this summer. But I also did these gigs. And I learned a ton. The entertainment editor at The Daily Northwestern part I include because I feel like it's a decent example of thinking outside the box to learn and improve. I wasn't old enough yet to be the actual entertainment editor, but during the summer I was able to screw up, try some stuff, screw up some more and learn things.

Working on the summer edition of the paper was like the training wheels edition of being a real editor. I also wrote one story that summer that led to my biggest award, sixth place in the Hearst contest, which helped me get The Washington Post internship later on. It was a crazy story, about a Phil Campbell convention filled with guys named Phil Campbell in a city named Phil Campbell. I wrote the story in a weird, natural conversational storytelling way. I wasn't trying to sound professional. I just wrote in my voice. I never had the guts to fully do that during the school year, but it was what led to the biggest accolade.

The internship at Illinois Entertainer was kind of ridiculous because to this day I'm really dumb about a lot of parts related to music. I would, like, identify bass lines as guitar lines. I would use overbearing rock-critic Lester Bangs jagoff terms in an attempt to sound grown-up and smart. I pissed off the editor by not using the comps he got me one time to see Supergrass because I ended up going to a cooler, more indie show at The Empty Bottle. He was furious. To this day, I never ever waste a comp. I am terrified. I know what someone had to do to call in that favor for that freebie, and it is never to be taken for granted.

Lesson: Try actually being yourself in whatever it is that you do, rather than automatically thinking that isn't good enough. When you get yelled at, listen. Learn that lesson. Don't be afraid to make an idiot of yourself and be wrong. If you admit it, you'll get better.


Age: 20

Year: 1995

Internship: The (Ft. Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel

This was an internship program via Northwestern called "Teaching Newspaper." Instead of going to school for the quarter, you were placed at a newspaper or magazine or TV station according to your abilities. I wasn't good enough to score the Miami Herald (a top-tier paper at the time, although budget cuts have made it a shell of what it once was) but the Sun-Sentinel was just my speed.

It was big, terrifying and so exciting. I drove cross-country from San Diego and got two speeding tickets in one day. I dated a 34-year-old copy editor who I later learned dated every intern. I got introduced to "The Rules" by my roommate. I went online for the first time. I went out to crime scenes and pumpkin patches and talked to dog-bite victims.

I have always had that spidey-sense when it comes to failing or disappointing or angering people (thanks, dysfunctional childhood for giving me this gift), and I distinctly remember my editor looking at me with the assessing eyes of someone deciding if I was a dummy or not. He had told me how their archive system worked, and I think I didn't get it right away. I could see in his eyes the psychographic determination of registering that I might not be a good intern, and I burned red with shame. I worked harder. I told him I would prove my salt. And I did. I also learned how to absorb complicated rapid-fire information and take notes.

Here's the secret: Don't be afraid to write things down. Don't be afraid to say, "Do you mind if I just start to take notes on what you're saying?" Pull out that paper or your phone to scribble down the how-to 1-2-3 immediately, as soon as the busy teacher starts talking. Don't email them later. It's lazy. Do that if you have to, but show that you respect the person's time. Your mentor will notice and be impressed.

Lesson: Learn how to learn -- and be honest with your mentors. I will never forget this one beautiful moment. I had told my professor who came down to visit me at the time how I didn't think I was getting enough cops experience. I didn't think the editors had enough faith in me that I could do it and wouldn't suddenly, like, commit a crime of my own while I was out there.

And do you know what that professor did when we all went out to dinner together to talk about my internship? It was genius. He said, "I also want to thank you for giving Mandy some good experience doing the police beat. That's an invaluable part of her internship." The next day, I was assigned a cops story. God I love that. (Jason Segel used the same trick to get the Muppets movie made!)


Age: 20

Year: 1996

Internship: The Village Voice

That summer, I worked part-time at the Gap in the West Village, worked for an editor at the Voice, tried to write my own stories and gained 30 pounds by eating the dollar-pizza every day. I also lived for a Frappuccino. I might only have $5 for the week, but I would spend it on that coffee drink. It was pretty cartoonish.

My first month in New York I stayed with a rich girl I didn't even know who lived in Westchester. Here's how that went down. I was having a meeting with the Daily Northwestern staff, and some other student activities group was meeting nearby. I was telling my staff, "I'm going to New York for the summer, but I need a place to stay." Another girl heard me and said, "I live in New York."

I said, "Can I stay with you?"

"Maybe," she said.

And a few emails and phone calls later she had gotten her family to agree. It was nuts. But it worked, and it was one of the strangest, coolest experiences of my life. A few weeks later, that girl's mother marched me into the 92nd Street Y, where I think she was a big patron or something and introduced me as her niece who needed a place to stay. She got me in, even though there was a waiting list months in advance.

At the Gap (where my sister, who was a district manager and a big cheese at the Gap in California, got me the temporary gig) I wore pretty much the same thing every day because I had no money. At the Voice, the woman I worked for could tell just how eager to please I was and gave me a run for my money. She had me researching everything from new jobs for her to the most obscure information that required me watching TV for hours on end. I did so gratefully. And she wrote me an awesome recommendation at the end.

She also introduced me to an editor at "In These Times" where I wrote a feature on Barnes & Noble crushing the indie bookstores. I wrote a few things for the Voice, but the one story that I remember the most is the story that got killed. I worked for months and months on it, something about advertising and education and corruption and exposing The Man, and it was just a sprawling mess. I remember getting off the phone with the young cute British editor who told me he could pay me a kill fee but the story just wasn't going to run -- and proceeding to weep for hours that I had finally done it, I had blown all of my chances in life, until my frustrated college roommates assured me that no, I would probably have one or two more. God, I was exhausting.

Lesson: Go all in, even when it leads to big spectacular failures. I spent the majority of this summer pining for my then-boyfriend (eventual husband, then ex-husband) and practicing waking up at 4 a.m. for a day spent folding shirts. All I knew was that I was going to be a machine. Work, work, work.

My happiest memory, though, is spending a day watching "Independence Day" with my friend Pete Segall who bought us the tickets and the popcorn, and it was the two of us, lost and alienated in the land of New York, but bound by being interns, enjoying the coolness of that movie theater and the popcorn that served as the meal for the day.

So, also: Find good friends. And work really hard and don't complain (unless you're really being taken advantage of, obviously) because even the most ignominious of tasks will teach you a hell of a lot. Oh, another thing that happened was I wore a "Riot Grrrl" T-shirt to work one day on a whim and that got me a gig writing some stuff for the music editor. So I guess wear cool T-shirts, too.


Age: 21

Year: 1997

Internship: The Washington Post

My final internship before I got a real job. We were treated as real employees, with a paycheck and regular bylines, and holy crap, was that the most stressful experience I had ever had thus far. My problem was that I thought that I needed to throw out all the things that had gotten me the internship in the first place out the window before I arrived in D.C. I basically tried to make my life as difficult as possible by thinking that I needed to learn how to write all over again in a more professional grown-up way. (By the way: The critical story that got me the internship was a story about Petersen Publishing buying out Sassy magazine called "The Death of the Intelligent Teen"...synchronicity, cool).

For my first story -- something on a dude who took care of graveyards -- I actually spent the entire weekend trying to find the perfect first sentence. Nightmare. I was just pure stress. Little did I realize that the writing that procured me the internship was cocky POV writing that I never should have abandoned.

I thought, well here I am now in the major leagues, now I need to write like a real writer. Instead of believing in myself and the voice that had gotten me the internship in the first place. That's a crucial lesson that I always point out to people. I was so afraid of seeming like a jackass. So I was shy, timid, radiating a neon level of self-deprecation. I wasn't on anti-depressants yet so, I suppose some of the problem was due to that. But I'll never forget the hard-won lessons of that time: Don't be afraid to think you are somebody.

Lesson: The rule of thumb I always tell people is that if you are at all afraid that you might seem like a jackass, that very fear is going to prevent you from being That Guy. Instead, err on the side of being the person who might push themselves to be more outgoing, more sociable, more networking.

And don't throw away whatever talents brought you somewhere. If someone hired you based on a warm and friendly interview, you don't need to go uber-cold. Don't be afraid to own your strengths. And because you are young, ask for guidance. Ask for brutal feedback. Realize that the feedback has nothing to do with your worth as a human being. Know that everyone doesn't know stuff -- especially when they are young. Have confidence tempered with joy, humility, gratitude, anticipation and a positive attitude. Don't be helpless, but don't be afraid to ask for help when you actually need it (and truly can't figure it out yourself). HAVE FUN. Be smart enough to know what you don't know. And, as Brene Brown might say: Dare greatly.

That's all I have at the moment. So -- what advice do you have for all those summer interns of the world out there right now? Any anecdotes of your worst or best internship ever?


Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.