by Anna Stachofsky
Last year, Anna Stachofsky served as an intern in our Virginia Beach Parks & Recreation’s Planning, Design and Development Division, where I work as a Senior Planner and had the privilege of being her supervisor during her six month stay. Anna will be graduating this spring with a Bachelor’s in Landscape Architecture and a Minor in Communications. Anna is hands down the most dynamic young professional in our field that I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with, and I am happy to now introduce her reflections on her internship here on The Field.
– Elaine Linn, PLA, ASLA, Landscape—Land Use Planning Professional Practice Network (PPN) Chair
During the spring and summer of 2018, the Ball State University Centennial Class of 2019 for Landscape Architecture left campus in pursuit of the infamous professional internship. Seeing as I had an 8-semester scholarship that I needed to stretch across a 10-semester degree, I decided I needed to get as much professional experience as I could—an entire semester of it, to be exact—in order to save some school money and get a mental break from a very taxing degree path.
I had a fairly unique internship experience: I traveled to the Virginia Beach area in August of 2017 to visit some good friends and network with local professionals. One visit led to another, and before I knew it, I was making arrangements to move to Virginia for an entire semester. Over the spring and summer of 2018, I managed to intern under both the private and public sectors of landscape architecture. My work week consisted of training with the Planning, Design and Development Division of Parks & Recreation three days a week, while interning with a private planning firm on the other two days. Comparing and contrasting these experiences proved invaluable to me and allowed me to explore my own strengths and preferences as I prepared to transition into the fully professional realm of landscape architecture.
Whether you are a future intern, a current intern, or maybe a professional who is considering hiring an intern of your own, I believe there are universal beliefs, values, and attitudes that are true of any design profession as far as internships are concerned. Recognizing these internship truths can help you prepare for an internship, acclimate to an existing internship, and recognize the mindset of incoming interns to any design office. Through reflecting on my experiences, I intend to share with you five major takeaways I derived from the overall internship experience.
Changing the world takes time.
And it likely takes more time than your internship offers to you. There are prodigal students out there who land professional development opportunities with some of the world’s most influential and progressive firms. However, even then, it is unlikely you will be handed a role to save the planet on your first day or even your last. This can be disheartening—I remember working on a community layout plan in which I wanted to add more greenspace and preserved canopy, only to sadly design to the bare minimum city requirements because my employer knew “canopy” wouldn’t sell in the eyes of the developer. We want to make changes right away, and we should never let that passion be extinguished. If you are lucky enough (and enthusiastic enough), you may come across unusual opportunities in which you can inspire and encourage growth even as an intern. Being an ambitious student by nature, I was on the lookout for existing projects to learn from and develop later into an undergraduate thesis. My passion led to proposing design concepts directly to the residents of an underserved community for a new park. This passion, supplemented with the support of my supervisor, Elaine, generated a unique opportunity that did in fact have a direct and positive effect on a community. However, to be in a position to change the world takes hard work and patience. Our time will come. Until then, our purpose as an intern is to observe, learn, document, and determine the best design practices for the future.
Collect and recognize your ego.
I’m not saying that interns are marching through the front doors ready and expecting to tackle your biggest projects. Rather, the ego I faced before I started my internships masqueraded as a crippling fear of failure. As the days wound down before my starting date, I found myself losing sleep and suffering from stomach aches wondering, “What if my employer puts me on a task that I can’t accomplish? What if I let people down and I am a disappointment?”
Stop. Center yourself.
Interns are brought into an office for the purpose of being trained. Questions should be asked and mistakes should be made, and your employer understands that as someone who willingly signed on to hiring an intern in the first place. You are not expected to pull an Olmsted or a Wright out of your pocket on day one. Even designers with years of experience can benefit from collecting and recognizing ego before starting in a new workplace. While I am still a very young mind, I have yet to meet a professional who refuses to fully acclimate new employees into their work environment before throwing them into the deep end of the project pool. The anxiety you are causing yourself is not worth your overall health and happiness. We sacrifice enough of this getting our degrees. Don’t allow yourself to overthink people’s expectations of you, especially when you haven’t yet determined what those expectations may be.
While it will greatly benefit your mind (and perhaps your sleeping schedule) to recognize your place on the totem pole of professional development, there is worth in being a fresh young mind in the office. Coming into my internships, I felt I would be there merely to learn and practice, but never expected that I could help my offices grow as much as they helped me grow. Which brings me to my next takeaway:
Internships help you recognize your added value to an organization.
From my experiences and the experiences of many of my peers, the most fulfilling internships consisted of symbiotic relationships in which the intern received invaluable professional experience, and the office was able to push creative boundaries using ideas and skills brought in by the intern. As a college student, I am currently receiving the most up-to-date technology and training in the field of landscape architecture, including SketchUp, Land F/X, and Lumion. Being a current student working with multigenerational coworkers, I had abilities and skills that I was able to share with, teach to, and use to support my coworkers and their projects. While working with Parks and Rec, I had the opportunity to create my own tutorials for basic Photoshop and SketchUp use, and present these tutorials to the Planning, Design and Development Division.
The opportunity to not only receive knowledge, but to reciprocate the gift of knowledge, helped me realize just how valuable an intern can be. We can do more than fetch coffee or file paperwork, and the design field in particular has recognized the need to train creative minds and to be open to continuous learning from the next generation of problem solvers. Interns should be excited and ready to share knowledge within their work environment because that enthusiasm and search for shared knowledge fosters positive and lasting connections amongst professionals.
Going back to school after an internship will feel nothing short of surreal.
It’s not fun. Here you were living the façade of a normal life, doing something you loved, learning hundreds of new things every day, and for some reason you have to return to school and learn SOME MORE. At this point, my whole studio, myself included, is pulling our hair out and working as fast as we can to graduate and get back out into the real world where 3 am bedtimes supplemented with 800 mg of caffeine are a thing of the past.
Don’t throw the end of your education away. College is an experience that you won’t get back, and this is an incredible opportunity to converse with your peers and gather information on the skills they learned and experiences they had during their own internships, before you sign on to your first jobs and all move far away from one another. At any rate, you’re stuck going back to class no matter what, so you might as well make the most out of the situation. Again, check your ego at the door. You may have been working in a professional environment, but you are far from completely educated. You still have duties as a student, and job offer or no job offer, you won’t begin a professional career if you don’t get that degree.
Internships generate connections. Don’t lose them.
Being an intern is awesome. For a lot of interns, it can turn into full-time employment after graduation. That’s great! And even if it doesn’t, whether you choose to pursue other opportunities or maybe there isn’t a need for an entry-level employee where you worked, the worst possible service you could do to yourself is forget the people who gave you this point of professional growth.
I cannot stress this enough. Connections. Are. Everything. I managed to land my internships because I put my nose to the grindstone to find local offices willing to host tours and interviews with me. If I hadn’t sought out those connections in 2017, I wouldn’t have had the diverse development I received. Eventually, it was Chad Morris, ASLA, at Virginia Beach Parks & Recreation and Melissa Venable who saw my potential and brought me onto their teams. When looking for internships, treat any situation as a chance to advance your career. Any time I travel I make a point to converse with a leader in my field, because if nothing else ends up coming from it, it is a chance to learn and share ideas. Don’t be afraid to be assertive in your internship search. Following up an application with an email or a phone call expressing further interest is a respectful and professional way to command attention from a potential employer. When an internship is complete and all is said and done, the people you have worked with for weeks and months are friends. If you were good to them, they will be good to you and help you find a meaningful career. My supervisors have been instrumental in my search to find a vocation and extend my name and credentials to other professionals. Down the road, you might even be asked to attend a conference, consult on a project, or maybe write a blog. Oh, look, I’m doing just that!
Internships are irreplaceable experiences that benefit multiple user groups. I feel design professions in particular are spoiled in just how much internships can inspire and train the emerging creative thinkers. If you haven’t been an intern, be one. If you are one, cherish it. And if you want an internship, get one, because the symbiotic flow of intergenerational knowledge is what continuously pushes society onward to new and innovative frontiers.
Anna Stachofsky is a student at Ball State University, pursuing a bachelor of landscape architecture (BLA) degree and a minor in Communication Studies.