I sometimes wonder how we expect young people to know, age 17 or 18, what they want to do with their lives. Schools often emphasise higher education (HE) but pay little attention to what students want to do afterwards. As someone who graduated with a degree in the humanities, I know what nebulous career options can feel like!
Fortunately, I fell into a field I love: international development and student recruitment within HE. Helping overseas students connect with British education really caught my interest. But these students already knew what they wanted to do, and over time, I realised I wanted to help younger people decide on their future path.
In April 2021, I joined Virtual Internships, an EdTech start-up specialising in global student employability. Virtual Internships’ core program places HE students globally with relevant internationally-focused companies. If a student is curious about social impact careers, for example, we might match them with a non-profit to learn more about jobs in that sector.
To address demand for a similar program in high schools, in 2020, Virtual Internships also launched its Foundations Program. Initially launched as a summer initiative, the program addresses the gap in real-world learning, intercultural development and career exploration opportunities for students in secondary education.
In international peer project teams, interns collaborate on structured weekly projects for a company in their chosen career group. They receive live and online professional development, structured feedback from company supervisors and regular touch-points with Virtual Internships. While the program is still new, we've been inundated with interest from host companies looking to participate. We have over 8,000 in our network so it’s not easy selecting the best fit for each cohort.
On our Foundations program, Virtual Internships works mostly with SMEs, meaning students often get to work and receive industry insights directly from c-suite. They don’t expect that! They arrive with grand designs of working for Google or Amazon but soon learn that working with start-ups means their ideas get heard and are sometimes even implemented.
Even with the pandemic in full force, the program's first year was a huge success. We’re now turning our attention to making it available as a curricular or extracurricular activity for schools globally. This means more students can access guaranteed work experience and the tools that empower them to choose careers aligned with their interests, skills and values.
The Foundations Program has four standard career options: engineering and computer science, social impact and NGOs, marketing and creative industries, or business and finance. Schools can also select their own theme, though. For example, we’re in discussions with a school district to support a Climate Action module, where we’d match students with global companies working in fields like green tech, agriculture or sustainability. We’ve created similar programs for university-level students, so we know it’s possible. In 2021, we placed teams of Australian HE students with environmental consultancy, Pomegranate Global. They developed climate literacy and problem-solving skills in an environmental context, before applying these to a range of companies in the Asia Pacific region.
To ensure the Foundations program stays focused and relevant, a facilitator from Virtual Internships manages the process. Each week, we introduce new projects, focusing on core business topics like strategy, HR or brand management. Clearly defined and age-appropriate, we deliver these directly, maintaining flexibility so that host companies can tailor them to their own agendas. This embeds learning in real-world activities.
Student teams also meet twice a week with their company supervisor. Since we typically work with start-ups, this is often the CEO. Meanwhile, our supplementary online career pathways module develops careers skills like goal setting, CV writing, and identifying professional values. Finally, at institutional level, our school partners receive weekly progress reports incorporating things like attendance and supervisor feedback. We also conduct pre- and post-program evaluations to measure students’ progress against local career competencies (like the Gatsby Benchmarks in the UK).
Virtual Internships Foundations is a new approach to work experience and career exploration. Students expecting a traditional internship may be surprised by the structured, class-based elements of the program. But they enjoy the hybrid approach and see the value in it. 87% of our program graduates confirmed that they increased their industry knowledge through the program, with a 20% increase of students building a better understanding of the necessary career path to reach their goals.