Alternatives to 2021 Summer Internships

Nathan Wilgeroth / Colleges of Distinction »

While this summer might have some brighter prospects than summer of 2020, there’s no doubt that things still might not go according to plan. Perhaps you feel that COVID-19 has made you fall behind, or maybe you’re anxious to do anything other than sit through your fourth viewings of both Bridgerton and Emily in Paris. As you finish up your second spring semester in quarantine, it’s worth thinking about your plans to have a worthwhile summer intersession. Your natural inclination as a student might be to apply for internships, but it’s always helpful to have other plans in mind just in case the demand for internships are high but the actual supply and actively seeking employers are low. Not all hope is lost! There are plenty of ways to make the most of your summer while still supporting your academic, professional, and personal growth.

Experience Is Everywhere

Real-world, hands-on experiences are not only available through internship experiences; in fact, the very act of adapting to the limited resources and opportunities as a result of the pandemic is praiseworthy in itself! Even if you don’t secure an internship, you have plenty of other ways to build employer-marketable skills. Roshni D. Lal, Director of Career Planning & Employer Relations at Marymount California University, advises “never [to] count out any type of experience, whether it is volunteer, retail, server, etc. The skills sets you gain and demonstrate are what employers pay close attention to and factor into their hiring decisions.” By building up and demonstrating qualities pertaining to leadership, collaboration, involvement, enthusiasm, and initiative, she says, students can show employers how the abilities they exercised in any experience can also be applied to professional positions. 

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Think of the ways in which your life experiences outside of school and work have challenged your time management and organizational skills. Acknowledge where you might stand as a leader, even if it is not in an academic or professional space. 

Start an Independent Project

An entrepreneurial spirit is valuable in anyone, not just those earning a business degree. Even if you’re not technically employed or under some kind of supervision, you can take the initiative to start a passion project that hones your skills. The best part is that you get to set your own parameters and focus on what really matters to you. An independent project can be for your own self fulfillment, or you can add whatever you work on to a portfolio that you submit to employers the next time you look for work or an internship.

The possibilities are endless! If you are interested in marketing and graphic design, you can create a website and blog to practice design and content creation. Create a blog, craft quality content, and apply Google Analytics to your work so that you can study organic web traffic. If you’re an artist, practice a new medium or create a set of pieces to play with themes and throughlines. Or if political science is of interest, write some op-eds about current events and consider submitting them to a local publication. 


Volunteer work is an incredible way to make connections and truly experience your ability to impact the world around you. Look around for nonprofits or social service organizations in your area that contribute to a cause that you care about. Nationally affiliated chapters of Meals on Wheels, Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, the Humane Society, or the ACLU can get you in touch with a large network of changemakers, while local organizations offer close-to-home and small but truly meaningful opportunities to support your community. Work at a soup kitchen, organize clothing donations, or distribute goods to underprivileged communities in your area.

You also have the opportunity to apply the skills of your major/career path to various forms of volunteer work. If you’re a future teacher, for example, you could volunteer to tutor kids from less privileged backgrounds or volunteer to assist in an English as a Second language class. Work on a campaign with a local politician, or maybe even provide consulting to small businesses to improve their SEO or social media presence. 

Skilled volunteer work is an incredible way to see your field of interest in action. And if you’re not sure how to get your foot in the door of these kinds of organizations, consult your school’s career development office to see if they can get you in touch with anyone. Many schools, like the University of North Carolina at Asheville, recognize the value of this kind of work and encourage passionate students to use their liberal arts education to benefit high-quality nonprofit and government organizations. Below are just a few testimonial experiences of UNC Asheville students who put their skills to use to improve life in rural North Carolina for a diverse array of residents:

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Elena Keller
My name is Elena Keller and I am a senior Health and Wellness major, German minor at UNCA, and this summer I interned with MAHEC’s COVID-19 Regional Response Team. I learned about our community’s response to COVID-19 by providing technical and administrative support for virtual classes, data tracking and external communications. What drew me to this position was that it provides an opportunity for me to learn more about the logistical side of public health work, as well as offer assistance during one of the biggest modern day public health crises.”

Emma Radulovic
“My name is Emma, I am an environmental studies major, chemistry minor and I had the opportunity to work for MANNA Foodbank through the SECU public fellows internship program. I am working in the HR department. I was happy to know MANNA selected me for this position because I have volunteered with them several times with my sorority. I knew they were a great nonprofit organization and I really wanted to learn more about all they do for our community beyond helping to end hunger. Through my work in Human Resources I have gotten to know almost all the departments at MANNA, and I now have a greater understanding of the need not just in our area but all around the world. Without this opportunity I never would feel as prepared as I do to go out into the work force next year and try to make a difference with my degree.”

Savannah Vickers
Hi! I’m Savannah Vickers and I’m interning at United Way of Asheville Buncombe County. I’ve always been drawn to working in the non-profit sector and found United Way to be a perfect fit. I was excited to use my creative and data management skills to carry out a project, the School Supply Drive. I was also excited to be able to do this through the SECU Public Fellows program because I knew that I would have fellow interns going through a similar process and that there would be an outside party ready to help if any problems arose.”

Some opportunities like those offered through SECU Public Fellows require similar application and interview processes as internships, but they illustrate the variety of ways that volunteer work can be specialized to students’ skill sets. 

Take Online Courses

Taking professional skill-building courses is a great opportunity to add to your résumé. Coursera, for instance, is a massive open online course (MOOC) platform filled with reputable educational resources that can help you stand out as a skilled job candidate. Its library of free and paid courses cover a range of topics to fit your career goals. While only a few courses are free, some students may have access to a larger library if they sign up with their university email address. Give it a shot to see if your school has a partnership with Coursera to offer additional courses to students.

LinkedIn’s new Skill Assessments feature is also a helpful way to add clout to your online profile. These short quizzes measure your proficiency of different professional skills and software, showing that you are truly qualified in the skills you have listed on LinkedIn. 

Explore Your Options for the Future

While you may not be interning this summer, you can still take advantage of your career development office to prepare for the next round of applications. Lisa Mann, Director of the UNC Asheville Career Center, notes that there are always things you can do to be more career ready. Get in touch with your career development office to spruce up your résumé, cover letter, and online profiles on sites like LinkedIn or Handshake. Practice mock interviews to get used to the one-on-one conversation, and take a skills assessment to get a better idea of the work environment you may be suited for. Mann also suggests reaching out to professionals in your field of interest, like professors or former employers, to get strong letters of recommendation. 

And, of course, it’s always beneficial to explore! Look around various job boards for different areas of work related to your field. Chances are that your field of study can prepare you for plenty of careers that you might not even realize exist yet! With this in mind, UNC Asheville’s Career Center recently launched the Cool Jobs podcast to inspire students to open their mind to different professional possibilities.