Out West student blog

Unanticipated Consequences of a Remote Internship

Photo of Lake Siskiyou from Wagon Creek pedestrian bridge. (Photo credit: Scott Lüdeke)

By David Lüdeke '21
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Major: Environmental Systems Engineering (Coastal Track)
Resilient Landscapes Program Intern, The San Francisco Estuary Institute

For the first portion of my remote internship at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), I viewed my experience as a fortunate outcome during unfortunate circumstances. l reasoned that, although no remote internship would match up to an in-person experience, my particular situation was nevertheless fulfilling. However, a recent conversation I had with a coworker made me question my basic assumptions about the nature of remote work. Our conversation occurred over Zoom from our respective houses on opposite sides of the Bay, and was one of several 30-minute meetings I had set up to get to know more of SFEI’s staff members (since I wouldn’t see them in the office). 

Expecting the typical sympathetic commiseration when I expressed regret at not being able to do the internship in person, I was surprised when my coworker instead pointed out that I’m gaining real advantages from doing the internship remotely. Firstly, a meeting like the one we were having wouldn’t have happened on a normal day at the office. Yes, I would see more people if I were working in person—but that doesn’t mean I’d have more real conversations with more people. Most busy employees can’t easily set aside 30 minutes of time in their day to exclusively talk to an intern. I’m sure I’d chat with some people over lunch or greet them in the mornings, but it would be difficult to find dedicated time for a one-on-one conversation. During a remote internship, however, the majority of my interactions are one-on-one. I’ve gotten to speak at length with almost everyone on the 30-person team, from the landscape architect to the ecologist to the director of the program. Beyond the obvious scheduling flexibility and lack of commute, this was a major advantage to remote work that I hadn’t considered. 

I can only leverage this advantage, however, if I have intentionality and initiative. I could pretty easily spend ten weeks “at” SFEI interacting with people only in weekly team meeting Zooms and during check-ins with my direct supervisors. Fortunately, my supervisor started setting up several 30-minute introduction meetings at the beginning of the internship, and I’ve continued to schedule more of those meetings over the weeks. And those meetings have been some of the best parts of my internship—I love hearing about what people do at SFEI, what they did before, and what led them here. Some people’s stories are convoluted, jumping across disciplines or even industries, while others are a straight shot from undergrad to employment at SFEI. In fact, most people I’ve met have worked at SFEI for many years and usually only leave to get a Masters or PhD before returning. 

This paradigm shift—from regretting the missed opportunities of a remote internship to reflecting on the tangible benefits of working from home like everybody else—is one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from my internship. Looking ahead towards an Autumn (and possibly Winter/Spring) quarter of online classes, I hope to continue holding this perspective and use it to get the most out of my senior year at Stanford.

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