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A message from an intern, on Thank Your Intern Day – Tiffany Yap

October 10, 2013

It felt like the first day of school. My pre-internship jitters got to me — is this what I really want to do? Am I going to fit in? What if I don’t like it? This despite the repeated reassurances of parents, lecturers, friends and boyfriend.

“For the last time, you will fit in just fine.”

“Your diploma course should have equipped you with all the skills you need.”

“No Tiffany, you are not going to get slapped.”

As a child, you are permitted to dream. Thirteen years ago, I wanted to be a princess, but my brother told me princesses do not wear glasses, and neither do they have short hair that looked like it had been trimmed with the help of a bowl on the head. Fast-forward six years and my aspirations of becoming a policewoman were brutally crushed when I ended up at the TAF Club. I never saw it coming. Now, here I am at 20, driven to take a hybrid mass communications-business diploma course in a polytechnic after reality kicked in - my final dream of becoming a housewife lying in pieces, my mum having been told no rich man would want to marry me.

For the past two and a half years in poly, I was drilled in modules that I can barely remember now, “to prepare me for the working world”. Just one month in as an intern reporter at Todayonline and I can safely say that nothing will prepare you better for the working world than the working world itself.

School, with all its courses and modules, can at best give you an idea of the general feel of an industry. You know, Googleable stuff, such as “what is journalism”, “what is broadcast” and “what is PR”. It is better than nothing, because “huh?” is not an acceptable answer when someone asks about your area of study, especially if that someone is a job interviewer.

So much emphasis is placed on teamwork, in the form of group-work and project-based grades, that we are at a loss when left to work alone. The working world consists of highly independent people who manage to work together as a team, but I feel the school curriculum makes us people-reliant and followers. We’re usually not pressured to try something beyond our comfort zone, and too-helpful lecturers try to feed us with everything we need to do well in examinations. The pain of mistakes and incompetence is minimised.

As a result, most of the time, school is not taken seriously. The comfort and company of our peers gives us the illusion that we are still young, when we are already hitting the big two-zero and will probably have to make life-changing decisions within the next decade.

Culture shock

My Grade Point Average (GPA) of 3.81 counted for nothing when I first wrote up an article for Today, full of confidence, only to have it sent back by my editor a sea of red, all errors and required fact-checks. (It’s still sitting in the system, waiting to see the light of day.) My As did not help me when I had to go to a media event alone and interview the Chief Business Development Officer of this company or the marketing and communication manager of that firm.

To be honest, the first day of my internship was very difficult; no schools can replicate the real experience of a real job in the real world.

As a friend of mine, Valerie, currently an intern at an events company put it: “I’m going back to school for my final semester after my internship ends, and my lecturers mentioned that they will be much harder on us because we’ve been through an internship. The thing is, even though most of what we learn at work is theoretically related to school work, work life is so different and the experience isn’t something we can simply transfer from reality to paper.”

It’s even more difficult to adapt when the cultures and norms of classroom and workplace are in conflict. Another friend, Cleris, who is interning at a food-related company, told me: “My school teaches me to be creative and daring, but my company forces me to be the exact opposite — here we work within the rules and we have to adhere to them. It’s a harsh culture shock. You can’t be happy-go-lucky and take risks when this kind of work is strictly black-and-white.”

Experience is the greatest lesson of all, because of the pain that comes with the mistakes. For me, the hurt I feel when failing a test in school is nothing compared to the guilt of messing up an article due for print the next day, and watching my full-time colleagues having to clean up after me on top of all the work they already have on their plates (Editor’s note – you’re welcome), or not asking the right questions at an interview and returning to the office with loopholes and insubstantial content. In an internship, unlike in school, every assignment counts.

Menial but meaningful

My friend, Arthur, a Mechanical Engineering student, struggles to cope with his examinations and just being able to pass and get to the next semester is usually a relief for him. Out of school and in his internship semester, he recently came home with his fingers stained pink after having had to help fix a printer.

“I am not sure if I learnt anything in school that helped me with this. I mean, you don’t need a Mechanical Engineering graduate to do this,” he said. “You can just pick someone off the street, teach him and he’ll be able to do it. In some ways it feels like we’re just cheap labour for these companies.”

But Arthur recognised the drone-like nature of the job would serve him in good stead down the line. “At the production level, it really just is menial labour, but because you know how it feels at that level, you can be a better manager or supervisor in the future. Your team will appreciate the understanding.”

The best thing about being an intern is that you have nothing to lose. That does not mean going around wreaking unnecessary havoc – after all, we still get graded for the semester – but it means there is plenty of room for error, room to learn. Most supervisors understand that interns are, well, interns, and cannot be expected to perform spectacularly well at the beginning. Our main aim at this point is to ensure we’re not still making these mistakes when we eventually become actual employees.

I can’t speak for everyone when I say that an internship will be the most eventful and fruitful experience of your polytechnic life, but I can safely say that my transition from student to working adult will be much smoother for my months in the newsroom. Having had a taste of working life, another four decades of the daily grind does not seem as daunting anymore.

It’s Thank Your Intern Day today – the day I get to enjoy the forced smile of my supervisor as he is obliged to walk up to my desk and find some way to appreciate my efforts (diabolical laughter) – but speaking as an intern, I think a “Thank Your Internship Day” is in order too. – October 9, 2013.

* The writer, a final-year student at Nanyang Polytechnic, is currently in journalism internship with Singapore paper Today.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.