Through the grace of God and 8 pt font on my resume, this summer, I have completed my 9th internship, *officially* bringing my intern career to a close.
Beginning my junior year of high school, I have clerked for a civil judge, interned at Shell Oil Company, Vinson & Elkins, the White House National Economic Council (under the Obama Administration), Goldman Sachs (3x), and campus internships through Cornell University and Jopwell.
What began as my childhood obsession with Michelle Obama and desire to gain early exposure to the legal field has led me down an incredibly insightful path and onto additional passions for business, public service, and now diverse forms of journalism.
Holding me up the whole way have been an unwavering coalition of mentors, sponsors, and family members, reaffirming the notion that "it takes a village." My first "real internship" was at age 16, clerking at the 164th Civil District Court under Judge Alexandra Smoots-Hogan – a black woman – and was secured through my uncle's outreach to his coworker's doctor's friend who then advocated for my pronounced interest in law, despite my age. Judge Smoots-Hogan took me under her wing and drilled into me the mantra that "there is a place for black women in politics and our voices matter." To this day, this internship represents so many foundational life lessons: sponsors and advocates matter, closed mouths don't get fed, always mentor and be mentored, and there is no substitute for hardwork.
9 internships later, these last few years have certainly been a journey – but it's just the beginning. As I promised Judge Smoots-Hogan, my success isn't defined by numbers but by impact. There is nothing I want more than to see hundreds and thousands of women of color break through glass ceilings and simultaneously reach back to pull more ladies up with them.
In a world where there are numerous obstacles and institutional inequities preventing women of color from access to life-changing resources and opportunities, we truly need to support each other and continually work to be the plug for opportunities.
"The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity." – Viola Davis
While I do not think that it's necessary for every student to complete 9 internships – even 3 internships are a lot – all students looking to begin their careers should be open to pursuing their interests and considering new opportunities that continuously arise. My internships have been an advanced trial period, allowing me to explore a number of potential paths before permanently committing to one thing. This insight has helped me form a well-rounded perspective regarding where my passions truly lie, and several years later, I'm still discovering new things.
Here are 9 lessons that I learned after working 9 internships that you can apply to your professional journey.
1. You won't love every job, but you will learn a lot about yourself.
Learning what you don't like is just as insightful as learning what you do. During my internship at the court, I quickly learned that Law & Order was not an accurate depiction of the legal system. Criminal law scared the daylights out of me. Rather than call off law altogether, I began to gravitate more towards corporate crime and public policy. This revelation not only saved me time and *emotional trauma*, but led me down a path that would be integral in my future roles at the law firm and financial services.
2. There will be moments of self-doubt.
We're not invincible. You can have all the training, education, and support systems under the sun and still have an off day every once in a while. There were days when I was working at the White House where I would literally run to the bathroom, call my mom, and cry after receiving negative feedback on a project. The work was grueling and seemingly never-ending (and we were unpaid). In those off moments, the true lesson was found in how I pulled myself back together and reattempted a project rather than wallowing in the failure itself. As the old saying goes, "Many times what we perceive as an error is actually a gift."
3. Do your research.
So simple, and yet so important. You wouldn't a take a test without studying, so you shouldn't go into an interview or coffee chat without basic understanding of an opportunity you're interested in. The internet is a beautiful thing. It can be overwhelming, so take your time, but it is incredible how many programs, scholarships, and opportunities I have found from simple Google searches and even Twitter and Facebook posts. Always ensure that you are taking advantage of the information that you do have within your grasp.
4. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes.
From my first mentor, Judge Smoots-Hogan, to classmates and division managers, I have learned that mentors are everywhere. They won't always be women of color, or even women at all. In fact, some of my most influential mentors have been white men. The point is, most of us need someone in our corner guiding and supporting us, be it professionally or psychologically, and there is no make or model for what that assistance will look like. I have had ladies that I once mentored as freshmen go on to advocate and connect me with important opportunities. You never know when you are going to need a helping hand and what people say about you when you are not there can make a tremendous difference.
5. Your brand and reputation matter.
That being said, your reputation matters. As Oprah said in her British Vogue interview, no one is expecting you to have a brand all figured out as a young adult. However, being highly regarded as someone who is eager to learn, always ready to lend a helping hand, and/or consistently provides good quality work can "brand you" as a good investment, encouraging others to take a chance on you.
Author, Lydia Anglin. Photo by Kelechi Mpamaugo.
6. Closed mouths don't get fed.
My philosophy for most of my career has been "the worst they can say is no." Aim high, and if you fall short, you will still be in a comfortable place. Particularly as students and young professionals, we have the ability to ask for help and seek out guidance from very established people, because in an ideal world, many would "like to help the younger generation." For an example, during one of my internships, I invited the global head of my department out to coffee, and to my surprise, he quickly responded and was very enthusiastic about meeting an intern. This privilege does lessen as we get older, and should be undertaken carefully, but definitely take advantage of it while you can.
7. Start small, but keep the big picture in mind.
For many of us, our first jobs are not glamorous. Before I interned at the court, I worked a retail job… and it was so difficult! However, I learned important customer service skills, patience, and the value of always presenting yourself as being willing to learn. Those same skills have applied to every internship and role I pursued since. Even Michelle Obama was once a 20-something.
Aim high and build upon integral professional values like persistence and hard work.
8. You have to put in the work – period.
While it's no secret that some have it easier than others, frustratingly so, there truly is no substitute for hard work. This does not mean work yourself to wits end – mental health and coalition building are very important – but the race will not run itself. Mentors, sponsors, and professional development programs serve as fuel along the way, but alone, they rarely are enough. It's your brand, your career, your future. Put in the work.
9. Reach forward and reach back.
As said by Maya Angelou, "I come as one but stand as ten thousand." Our successes extend so much further than ourselves. From Ruby Bridges to Katherine Johnson, someone once walked so you can run. As you open doors, remember to reach back and give the key to those who follow you.