One of the great challenges that students selected for NSL face has to do with working in Washington DC and experiencing a professional work environemnt. Most other places do not offer the same opportunities to young folks as this, or the same sort of access for young, inexperienced people who, though they are studying, are not yet qualified to be fully functioning members of a profession.
That means that any work experience is a deal between the student and the workplace which, to be successful, requires that both parties get what they need out of it. And overall, the success of the program depends on the success of the work placements.
For the workplace, taking on students and offering a serious work program requires work and investment of staff time and resources. And in return, they get an extra hand on their staff, who depending on how talented and ambitious the students are to seize that opportunity, end up being real contributors to the work, and are thus seen in the end as assets. But at the beginning, the workplace sees the student as more work more than they see him or her as an extra worker. Team members need to understand that.
In other words, the workplace does expect real work from the student, and given that the young person is mostly untrained or unqualified, the kind of work can be as sophisticated as helping a member of Congress write a speech, or as menial as answering phone calls or delivering mail. An NSL student needs to arrive ready for anything.
Washington over the summer months is a City of 20,000+ interns and the achievement for most is in getting the place, regardless of the kind of work. Being an intern in Washington opens the door to a host of other opportunities that transcend the actual work experience. So, interns need to realise and take advantage of the many talks and seminars and concerts and gatherings that are open to all interns. Your office expects that.
For the student, the expectation is that he or she will get some real hands-on work experience, something that does teach them something and something that makes them feel that they are valued as a genuine contributor to the mission of the institution they are interning at. But part of the secret of a successful work placement is managing the expectations, especially early on. Every year, one finds some students who bring totally unreal expectations, that they want to start at the top and work up, Having such an attitude can be inhibiting, because an unhappy student is largely an unproductive one. Our advice to all our students is to embrace the whole work experience as a learning experience, to come with more anticipation than expectation, and to commit to making the most of any opportunity that comes their way. Even the frustrations can be valuable moments of learning about yourself.
Some things about working in Washington are taken for granted by the locals, but students from overseas often misread the cues or are simply not used to the daily pressure of professional life, which can be so different from daily student life. Some things cannot be over-emphasized, as in showing up on time for work, not leaving before the work is done, dressing and acting appropriately, showing respect and appreciation, being sure to show you are a team player, that you are giving clear signals that you are there to work, to learn, to co-operate. It means you learn to listen, and shut off the phone or the Facebook when someone is addressing you. The Golden rule is always helpful, as in not to do anything to your fellow workers or bosses that you would not appreciate being done to you. You don’t appreciate it if you are trying to get your point across and your co-worker is texting or surfing the web. Washington has been called the most workaholic city in the world, so bosses expect a strong work ethic from all they employ.
You are also expected to be your own best problem solver, that if you are facing a challenge or something that you are not sure about, you ask. You take the initiative, and if for some reason, the work placement is not working out as you expected, to be able to discuss that with your supervisor in a frank and respectful way. Many problems can be solved if they are talked through early on. The program will be monitoring your progress but it does not expect any workplace to be an instant success for any student. It takes patience and it takes working at it.
Many commentators write that members of your generation, Generation Y, the so called Millenials, are the kind of people who want to be engaged, who want to feel they are really playing a significant part in whatever work they are doing. That is a great quality to have, but it must be tempered with a patience and a wisdom that sometimes, you have to earn people’s trust, sometimes you have to prove your competency in smaller tasks before the members of staff will come to see your talent and your eagerness. In other words, one quality that is indispensable is humility.
You are a student, you are there to learn, and the workplace is really doing you and the program a huge favor more than you are doing them a favor. The balance of contribution needs to be clear from the start. And one needs to come to your office with an attitude that conveys that respect and gratitude along with the enthusiasm. People end up getting the work that the office feel they are capable of. If you are stuck with jobs that are too small for your talents, your challenge is to show you can offer more than that, but you cannot presume your office staff know that. This is where you have to lead. That is why the program selected you for your ability to take the initiative.
The personal challenge for you as a student is-Can you come in as a total stranger and in 6 weeks, prove that you are trustworthy, reliable, competent, a team player, and with real leadership talent such that at the end, the supervisor will gladly write you a reference and invite you to come back, or invite the program to send someone just as good next year. The program can find you the best place, and encourage and support you, but in the end, success in the workplace is basically up to you. NSL presumes that one of the compelling reasons you applied for NSL is that you feel you are up to the challenge. But it is not to be taken lightly. And not every work place is a success unless the student is ready to put in the work, real work. Washington tests everyone. Are you up for the test?