Centering Equity and the Intern Experience: 3 Questions Managers Need to Ask Themselves While Hosting Virtual Internships

By Selene Chala, Company Relationships Manager

Photo by Kenneth Eke
All photos by Kenneth Eke

In a remote world, companies are adapting their summer internships to virtual experiences. These new experiences unlock new challenges and opportunities. In that space of both challenge and opportunity lies innovation and experimentation, a chance to try new approaches that center equity in summer programs. At Code2040, our Company Partners are onboard and asking, “How? How do we ensure that we continue our equity practices outside of the office?” How do we build an experience that allows for networking, learning, and engagement?” The great thing about being at this moment is that we’re all facing similar challenges. As programmatic changes begin to materialize, and with the goal to center racial equity and the student experience, here are a few questions managers should consider and our suggestions on how to begin to approach them.

1. What are some of the ways inequity can show up through virtual internships?

Because the overall structure of summer programs are shifting to support an online experience, there’s space for planning programs that prioritize the needs of those most impacted by virtual experiences. These communities include caregivers, people living in rural towns/cities with a lack of reliable internet infrastructure, students with housing instability, and students whose mental health has been impacted by Covid-19.

For Caregivers

For some students, living at home means supporting their family in various ways, including translating documents or being at in-person appointments for family members, helping their younger brothers and sisters with summer school, and providing childcare, to name a few. Usually, when interns relocate for their internships during the summer, their caregiving responsibilities are put on pause, done virtually, or delegated elsewhere for the duration of their internship. Since homes will also be a place of work, there will be a necessary need to balance both internship and caregiving responsibilities and, therefore, a learning curve to achieve balance as a young person.

Things to consider:

  • Check-in with interns before their start date to create plans that address workplace needs and work hours flexibility needed.
  • Make sure internships are project-based, and those project objectives are clear.
  • Be explicit about when students are required to be responsive and what the expected response time is.

Access to Internet Inequality

As data shows, internet access is not equitable across the country. In fact, about 15% of households in the US lack access to an internet plan. For some students, not having access to your company’s wifi will create a unique set of challenges. As students figure out how to navigate these barriers, optional virtual lunches or team game nights may not be worth working through random connectivity issues. For example, if they are working elsewhere, they might prioritize their projects instead of the virtual lunch to optimize the time they’re connected to the internet.

Things to consider:

  • A wifi/internet stipend they could use to strengthen their online connection at home.
  • Work equipment already set up and sent to them before the internship starts.
  • Not all students will self disclose having tech issues, so create space to check in about needs/ challenges with internet and technology at home and offer any support available.

Students navigating mental and physical health needs

In addition to the physical risk of being in the middle of a Covid-19 outbreak, many people are facing heightened anxiety and depression during this time of isolation. Our current reality shows that Black and Latinx people are in hospitals and passing away in disproportionate numbers because of Covid-19, which tells us there’s a need for mental and physical health resources and policies. Interns having clear onboarding to health policies and resources available to them is essential so that if taking care of someone sick, having to take care of themselves, or having to process the community impact of this pandemic becomes necessary, they can do so. The effects of Covid-19 are vast, and we have some suggestions on how to account for these needs as it relates to internship programs

Things to consider:

  • Being explicit about PTO/ Sick care policies and resources available for summer interns and explicitly naming if policies cover mental health.
  • Talk about implicit and explicit expectations your company has around taking time off, vacation time, and how to communicate about these.
  • Making Employee Resource Groups available for interns.

2. How do we replicate learning opportunities and relationship building that happens organically in person?

Internships are opportunities for students to get exposed to company culture, teams, and work they might encounter in a company. A significant aspect of an internship is networking and building a community, yet it doesn’t come easily for everyone. People are more likely to talk to people who share the same race, as suggested in a study in 2016. This dynamic sets up Black and Latinx professionals, who only make up 9% of tech in Silicon Valley, to face a disproportionate level of risk and effort when initiating relationships with senior staff and people outside of their teams. The good thing about a virtual internship program is that there’s space to create systems that ensure relationship building and learning happens for all interns.

Things to consider:

  • Creating systems that randomize meetings for people who don’t sit in the same team intentionally. By randomizing one on ones, you create conditions where the perceived risk of being rejected and bias coming from managers expecting a high level of social networking from their interns lessens. It creates more consistent and equitable access to everyone in the company. Tools like the Donut application for Slack can help with this!
  • Set up one-on-ones for all new interns with people outside their teams.
  • Make relationship building part of internships objectives for both interns and their managers. That way, an intern gets a sense of the company culture outside of their immediate team. As a shared objective, it builds shared responsibility in the success of meeting that objective. An example objective can be: completing five one-on-ones outside of a direct team before the summer is over. Given that interns have the least amount of hierarchical power in a company, making sure everyone else is ready to support in meeting this objective helps distribute the responsibility across the company and builds company-wide investment.

3. How do we engage Black and Latinx Technologists virtually this summer?

Building strong relationships and trust is an excellent baseline for supporting students. We also know that Black and Latinx students want to feel invested in and be seen both as individuals and as people part of Black and Latinx communities. Here are some suggestions on how to do that:

  • Teach managers to be relationship-focused: Many Black and Latinx communities are relationship-oriented. Fear of Confirmation Bias makes it hard to trust that being vulnerable like when asking for help, giving and receiving feedback, and showcasing work in draft form will not negatively impact reviews and will only confirm people’s bias towards who doesn’t belong. You can begin to account for this through building relationships focused on ensuring interns feel comfortable sharing, asking for feedback, and floating unfinished work for collaboration. In virtual reality, this means setting up a specific place and time for feedback and virtual needs. It also means taking the time to check in informally outside of one on ones.
  • Be explicit about your company’s communication culture: Since interns are only in their roles for a few months, being clear on communication values during onboarding takes away some of the burdens of learning nuances in a culture that is already harder because of being virtual. For example, in some cultures, feedback and engaging in conversations with superiors can be a sign of disrespect and lack of humility. Another example is that some students deal with imposter syndrome that’s exasperated in an environment where the majority of people don’t look like them.

Things to Consider when thinking of communication culture:

  • Define what online communication looks like in your company and team. Extend this to cover feedback expectations, meetings, and communication channels.
  • Offer different ways for interns to share ideas and explicitly state the purpose of each avenue. options can include documents where people can write ideas/feedback, one on ones, online platforms and communication tools, onboarding buddies and program mentors
  • Create a safe environment for all your interns by encouraging Equity and Inclusion training for your full-time staff before interns starting. Be explicit and vocal on both company commitments (what’s already practiced) and aspirations as it relates to Racial Equity and Inclusion.
  • Work on creating a space for interns to feel safe and encouraged to offer feedback on how your company is doing on these commitments and goals.

Working conditions are different this summer. We are doing everything new and adapting as we go while still being in the middle of a pandemic. So my biggest suggestion is this: Be prepared to learn with your intern. Ask for feedback about what’s working and what’s not. Ask questions and lead with curiosity when things aren’t working. Be ready to be responsive to the learnings and needs that are uncovered through the process. Give yourself and your intern grace and flexibility as you approach the summer together.

Code2040 is a nonprofit activating, connecting, and mobilizing the largest racial equity community in tech to dismantle the structural barriers that prevent the full participation and leadership of Black and Latinx technologists in the innovation economy. Through events, trainings, early-career programs, and knowledge sharing, Code2040 equips Black and Latinx technologists and their allies with the tools, connections, and care they need to advocate for and achieve racial equity in the tech industry.

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Code2040

Activating, connecting, and mobilizing the largest racial equity community in tech.