internshipI arrived at freshman year orientation having just finished a whirlwind of a gap year that included sharing a stage with Jane Goodall and travelling around the country for her youth program, Roots & Shoots. I promised myself that I would chill out for at least a semester. Turns out, I’m not so good at that.

Within three months of starting college, I had enthusiastically accepted every offer to beef up my resume and CV through work and internship opportunities. I had a job on campus as well as a time-consuming fellowship with a socially conscious production company, and at the start of my second semester, I missed a week of school to fly to Abu Dhabi to speak at a conference.

But my drive to participate in everything was taking a toll on… everything. I was overextending myself to the detriment of my college (and life) experience. I would’ve been better off spending quality time with my commitments over the long hours I was logging.

These are the things I wish someone had told me before I started my first internship:

Intern: Know Your value

I am no longer surprised when I hear a friend say that they just accepted a 20+ hour a week internship with no pay or stipend.

In my own experience, I was shocked when, only months into an unpaid Fellowship, I was asked to join the team and practically double my hours. The only problem was that they still couldn’t afford to pay me. Foolishly, I agreed anyway. As I found my time commitment to the company increasingly cutting into my schoolwork and free time, I quickly realized that while the work I was producing was valued, I wasn’t. In order to move forward professionally, I had to move on.

This doesn’t mean that unpaid internships can’t be rewarding. If an hourly rate or stipends are not on the table, make sure that they still recognize the value that you bring to the company. This could mean letting you sit in on high-level meetings, taking you to networking events, giving you clear and constructive feedback, and trusting you to lead projects.

Most importantly, if you ever feel like you are not valued or your time would be better spent somewhere else, leave. Be sure to let your supervisor know why you are leaving–it may help them build a better program for future interns.

Start Small 

When looking for an internship, it is important to think outside of the box. Big name companies may look fancy on your resume but being a part of a large company will mean you’ll be lost in a sea of 400 other interns. Think about joining the team of a small and/or young company in your area to get much-needed experience. They might not be able to pay you as much, or even at all, but it is more likely that you will learn what it really takes to run a business as one of four interns rather than one of 400.

This can sometimes be scary, as the company isn’t well known. But, wouldn’t you rather be an integral part of making something successful then an invisible cog in a gigantic machine?

Relish Your Free Time

While all of my experiences were amazing, I wish that I had put more value in taking time off.

Get serious about your free time. That might not mean actually scheduling it into your calendar, but make sure that you don’t over schedule yourself so much that you can’t make it to Friday night toga parties. Having time to relax will make you a better student and team member.