Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, interns would show up for their first day armed with a new button-down shirt, a neat haircut, and a nervous smile. Today, they need a reliable laptop, a strong Internet connection, and good lighting.

Nearly 70% of Southwestern students complete at least one internship before graduating. That’s no surprise considering these high-impact experiences offer valuable opportunities to develop new skills and try out potential career paths. Noel Pratts ’21 and Audrey Payton ’21 are both completing remote internships with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) Fiscal Monitoring Unit (FMU) during the fall semester of 2020 with funding support from the Center for Career & Professional Development. While their experiences may not mirror those of past interns, they still reflect the challenges and opportunities that await in the real world.

Excelling at Excel

When Noel Pratts ’21 interviewed for the data analytics internship with DSHS via webcam over the summer, she was a little nervous about her skills with Microsoft Excel—or, rather, her lack thereof. The internship description said intermediate Excel skills were required and advanced skills were preferred. “I didn’t have much experience with Excel then,” says the business major and data science minor. “I didn’t know all the shortcuts and such.”

Her interviewer did indeed ask about her Excel experience, but Pratts got the internship anyway. Now, thanks to the work she has done over the last few months, she’s no longer worried about that question coming up in future interviews.

“It’s a lot of Excel work. That’s the best way to explain it,” she says with a laugh. “What they’re teaching me about Excel is really going to be helpful in the future.”

Pratts is working on two projects for the FMU, which provides financial oversight of the many grants awarded by the state agency to organizations throughout Texas. First, she’s helping keep the website updated and tracking its use. This includes looking at trends, monitoring traffic, and measuring conversion. Second, she’s part of a team of interns analyzing financial information submitted by grantees to identify areas of risk.

“I’m not a math person, but I like the numbers,” says Pratts, who hopes to complete her M.B.A. after graduating from Southwestern before entering the field of digital marketing. “At the same time, I’m creative. I enjoy coming up with a strategy for marketing things.”

While the internship is completely remote, Pratts still works as a member of a team. Each Tuesday and Wednesday, she meets with her colleagues via Microsoft Audrey Payton '21 Audrey Payton ’21Teams so they can discuss where they are on projects, address any issues, and build a sense of camaraderie. “I really appreciate the weekly meetings,” Pratts says. “When you’re emailing things, it can get confusing. The meetings help. I also like getting to put a name to a face. It’s good to see an actual face and know who you’re talking to and have open communication.”

Pratts initially applied for the position so she could gain some real-world experience. In a previous internship with George Bush Intercontinental Airport, she shadowed employees to learn about their day-to-day work, but she didn’t do much hands-on work herself. The internship with DSHS is allowing her to grow her skills and better prepare herself for the workforce. 

“I really enjoy the people. The amount of knowledge they have is incredible to me,” Pratts shares. “Working on the website and communicating with the web developers is my favorite part.”

On average, she dedicates about 12 hours a week to her internship, though her hours often exceed that. This is on top of the 17 credit hours she’s taking in the fall semester and the time she spends practicing as a member of Southwestern’s women’s basketball team. While the basketball season has been postponed until the spring because of the pandemic, the team still practices for one hour six days a week. She also spends 30 minutes in the weight room twice a week.

“I’ve never been this busy my entire four years at Southwestern,” Pratts remarks. “I thought my senior year would be a breeze.”

Learning to adapt

Audrey Payton ’21 is no stranger to the internship world. Before beginning her internship with the DSHS FMU in August, Payton had completed three previous internships: she interned with the ticketing department at the event production company C3 Presents, performed data entry for a local real-estate agent at Keller Williams, and served as a volunteer-engagement intern with the Thinkery, the children’s museum in Austin. For many students, three internships would be enough, but Payton was intrigued when she saw the financial analyst internship description.

“I wanted another piece of the puzzle.”

“I wanted another piece of the puzzle,” Payton shares. “Data is huge now. It’s very up and coming. I thought it would look good on my résumé.”

The communication studies major and business minor is part of a team of interns analyzing financial data related to DSHS grantees. She’s helping identify usage trends throughout the state, such as the percentage of grant funding used on equipment. “I’m compiling data and creating strategies in response to the data. You can apply these skills in so many areas of the business world,” Payton says. 

Noel Pratts '21 Noel Pratts ’21
While her work is not directly related to COVID-19, Payton still gets an inside look at how DSHS is responding to the pandemic. “It’s interesting to be working for health services at this time,” she says. “I’ve seen a couple of presentations from epidemiologists and taken a virtual tour of the different departments in the agency.”

In addition to working about 10 hours a week at her internship, Payton has two part-time jobs. She spends nine hours a week working for Southwestern’s Office of Study Abroad and six hours a week working for the Office of Student Activities. She’s also taking 18 credit hours. Because her schedule is so busy, completing her internship remotely has been beneficial in many ways. She meets with her team virtually every Wednesday, but other than that, her hours are fairly flexible. “Luckily, there’s not a lot of back and forth,” she remarks. “I can stay on my computer and do everything from there.”

At the same time, there are some drawbacks. “Communication can be challenging. I’m definitely one of those people who asks a lot of questions, but I may not think of a question during the meeting. Then I have to email someone, and they may not get to it immediately. It’s more of a delayed communication,” she explains. “I enjoy talking to people in person way more.”

Payton isn’t entirely sure what she wants to do after graduation—”I think I have time to figure that out,” she says—but she’s interested in a career in digital marketing. No matter what field she enters, she knows this semester’s internship has given her some valuable experience.

“I’ve never had a remote internship. It’s helping me learn to adapt to new circumstances. I can carry this skill throughout my life in different situations,” Payton reflects.