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How to DIY a Summer Internship in a Pandemic

By Helen Sun

This is the long and twisted story of my quarantine job search.

My first internship opportunity was canceled in late March, the same week I was due to return to America after my canceled Dublin study abroad semester. In between my mom leaving food outside my bedroom door three times a day like I was a hostage since I returned, I frantically applied to all the job listings under the search term “Construction Intern” on LinkedIn, writing cover letters with the same desperation I had writing secret love letters to my crushes in middle school after just ten minutes of brief internet research. After I was freed from isolation, whenever I passed a construction site on my weekly neighborhood jogs, I paused to snap a photo of the construction company logo on the site barrier to reach out to them later. After a final exam that ended at 4 am due to time zone difference, I attended my first virtual career fair on Handshake the same morning and messaged several company HR’s in a chatbox, struggling to focus and make my appeal using only texts that awkwardly lagged. I even reached out to my former SE 101 TA, who then referred me to her boyfriend who manages a small construction company. I must have written thirty or so cover letters to these random companies I encountered.

The prospect of interning with the company I turned down for the first opportunity last fall seemed hopeful. After I emailed them during my isolation, they responded that they wanted “talk more”. My two months of “focusing on personal growth”, also known as cracking open too many Guinness’s with the boys, rendered me utterly unprepared to speak about my coursework, soft skills, and project experience. Halfway through the humiliating call, I faceplanted a nearby pillow in shame while holding onto the last scraps of professionalism in my voice. Immediately afterward, I followed up with the company twice, once immediately after the call to attempt fixing the negative impression I gave off, and once ten days later, following through with Patricia Cook’s advice to start a conversation about the company’s publications and industry-related podcasts to demonstrate interest. Her advice worked, and the company said they would call me back in May after their pandemic response plans were finalized. They did and called me a few more times afterward to discuss my internship role and my work style. I leveraged my new T&M workshop knowledge to make sure I not only didn’t screw up on any of the calls but exceeded their expectations after every call. I dropped kick the air and hit the whip like a dad when they sent me the offer letter in early May, and when the opportunity was canceled less than a week later, I desperately reached towards any opportunity that would take my inexperienced yet eager outstretched hand once again.

Before I embarked on my third round of job searching, I remembered a TED talk assigned before the Leadership Tips workshop with Tricia Cook, “How to Future-Proof Your Career” by Dorie Clark. She told a story about a former management consultant who cooked as a hobby but ended up becoming one of the best chefs in the country, starting her new career just by writing the chefs she admired a personal letter explaining her background, her eagerness to learn, and why exactly she wanted to work with them, instead of sending in resumes to job ads. “Formulate that picture, that vision of what you want and seek it out,” Dorie Clark concluded. I was in the same position as this former management consultant, and I vowed not to “end up settling for crumbs”; I was going to create my narrative and value in the same manner as she did.

I told JQ about my canceled internship, and he offered his help by sending me a website with the list of startups in UIUC’s Research Park. He encouraged me to send my resume and cover letter to the companies I’m interested in, even if they had no job positions posted. “Who knows what that could lead to,” he messaged me on Slack. I scrolled through the list of startups and skimmed through the descriptions. The first three pages were all mechanical engineering and computer science-related startups. I was on the verge of giving up; however, my will and my instinct told me to keep going and I continued scrolling until the end. Among the startup contacts I saved was Reconstruct. As soon as I clicked on their home page, I shouted “YES”. My legs were jittery from excitement reading about their virtual construction command center development, and I was inspired by their innovation in such a traditional industry. The more I researched the louder I said to myself “This is it!”

They had no job openings listed but I did exactly what JQ and Dorie Clark suggested; I explained to their faceless resume email my background, what I’m excited about from my initial company research, and what I’m looking for in an internship opportunity, crossing my fingers for a reply. To my surprise, the next morning someone from their team responded. I learned from my past mistakes and had an interview cheat sheet prepared from all my past interviews; I needed this opportunity, and I was going to rock my first impression. And I did. I enthusiastically expressed my desire to help their customer projects and how exactly I could help them, I learned about the social yet fast-paced company culture, and my manager and I bonded over California’s recent hot weather and our experiences in Europe. Within a week, Reconstruct sent me an offer letter for a role I designed with my manager and I accepted it without hesitation.

These past months have been a roller coaster of professional development, interviews, and networking. I extend a huge thank you to T&M for connecting me with so many helpful alumni and teaching me essential etiquette and leadership skills during my job search process, as well as everyone who supported me along this journey in any means. To everyone still in search of an opportunity during these times, best of luck and don’t give up. There are unlimited opportunities out there if you just create them yourself.

Helen Sun

Helen is currently in T&M Class XXVI, a sophomore in Civil & Environmental Engineering, from San Jose, California, and has recently accepted an internship with Reconstruct Inc as a Customer Success Engineering Intern.

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