Why Being "Just an Intern" Isn't Always the Worst Thing

Posted on Friday, Aug 04, 2017

I almost went full Edward Snowden a few weeks ago. Well kind of anyways.
Earlier this year, my hosting office sent a team of experts to conduct interviews and site observations to investigate the state of refrigerated and frozen food product handling in a major U.S. trade partner country. My first major task during my internship was to compile these experts’ individual trip reports into a final assessment and have it translated. Inside, there was a comprehensive and sometimes not too shining account of how both private and government entities conducted their business. Needless to say, this is probably not information that should be out there for everyone to see. Enter intern.
We were about to host a series of workshops to summarize the recent study and discuss best practices and next steps. I was in charge of compiling guides and resources to distribute at these workshops. Now I don’t know how I got this in my head, but I was sure that I was also supposed to print and send 60 copies of this final report as well. So as these reports are merrily on their way out of the country in the bottom of a plane, I proudly sent an email to my supervisor detailing what was coming. His reply: “Do not let these reports out. Please.” Enter same but now terrified intern.
To make a long story short, the reports are now back stateside, and the tension has thawed. When my supervisor talked to me about it, I was confident I was about to be relegated to the most menial of tasks. However, his reaction was much more positive than I had expected. He actually commended me for making a call and taking action when I couldn’t wait to get a go-ahead from him. While I made the wrong decision, I did make a decision and did what I thought was best.
The above scenario is a testament to the beauty of being “just an intern.” You’re expected to make mistakes, and I am fortunate to have a supervisor who treats these as learning opportunities instead of detractions to my ability. Being an intern and especially a student intern opens so many doors for taking chances and asking for things that normally might not be afforded to you otherwise. It’s a time to learn and take certain risks.
There’s very few other times in your professional career where you might be able to make a mistake and get away unscathed. Sitting back and playing everything safe during your internship and not asking for bigger projects or more important tasks because you’re afraid that you might screw up is most likely a tried and true method to secure a solid recommendation letter; however, you’ll be missing out on unique and incredible opportunities to leave your comfort zone and have a safe environment to push your limits.
I’m not telling you to readily print and almost distribute sensitive information, but don’t live in constant fear of making a mistake. Ask for new tasks or projects and take initiative. Take a stab at something that interests you or that the office needs to get done and ask for feedback. Even if you do it completely or nearly completely wrong, you’ll be recognized for taking a risk and trying to exceed what’s expected of you. Gain the confidence to go out on a limb now while you’re not that far up the tree that is your professional career. Even if the limb breaks, there’s generally a nice intern sized pile of leaves at the bottom to soften the fall.

Tom McKean
Global Cold Chain Alliance
Washington, D.C. | summer 2017