How to be a Great Intern

(originally published in Asian Fortune September edition,

As another summer intern season draws to a close, I can’t help but reflect on the dozen or so interns from various academic institutions I have worked with and feel compelled to offer some tips for those who plan to use internships to enrich their experiences and make themselves more attractive to future employers.

It is no easy task to find a good internship these days. With so many adults competing for paid jobs, more and more students are turning to internships than ever before; it is thus all the more important to make the most out of your internship. Tough economic times can spell opportunities for student interns who are willing to take jobs with or without pay, because chances are you will be used as experienced professionals to work on challenging projects that organizations can no longer afford to hire full-time staff for.

Regardless of your educational backgrounds or skill sets, here are a few practical tips to help you avoid some common pitfalls and make the most out of your internship:

  1. Check your emails and voice mails. Once you give out your phone number or an email address on your resume, it becomes your responsibility to check them often so you don’t miss important messages for interviews. The fact that you don’t routinely use certain email accounts is no excuse because you will be performing adult tasks and will expect to be treated as one.
  2. Take the interview seriously, whether it is over the phone or in person. Check out the organization’s Web site before your scheduled interview, and prepare a few questions in advance that show you have done your homework and you value this opportunity.
  3. Follow up promptly. After the interview, make sure you send a simple thank-you note, email or hand-written, to either reiterate your interest in the internship or politely tell them you are no longer pursuing that opportunity. Having this habit will serve you well.
  4. Dress appropriately for work. Even during the summer time, when the dress code is a little more relaxed, it’s still wise not to wear jeans with holes, very short skirts, tank-tops, low-cut tops or flip flops to work, unless that’s the normal dress code for professionals too.
  5. Learn to follow verbal instructions. Students may find this challenging because they are more accustomed to written instructions from their teachers or professors in the forms of class syllabuses or textbooks. In the workplace, most of the instruction you will get is likely through verbal communication. You may consider taking notes while receiving verbal instructions to make sure you fully comprehend what the expectations are.
  6. Take initiatives and don’t wait to be told what to do. How much you get out of each internship experience depends on your level of initiative. I had interns who were so shy and passive it was easy to forget they were there, while others excelled because they expressed curiosity about certain subjects, asked thoughtful questions and sought to do more than their assigned tasks.
  7. Pay attention to little things that can make a big difference in people’s perception of you and your ability. Simple things such as formatting your Excel spreadsheets to make sure they print properly and making a PowerPoint more visually attractive go a long way. Don’t let these important details trip you up!
  8. Don’t be afraid of asserting your voice if necessary. Professionals who have been in the trenches doing the same things for years may not have the creative thinking or fresh perspectives you can bring to the table as a new generation that grew up with the Internet. The best interns are the ones who can offer extra value, like a better way to do certain things.
  9. Always strive to exceed expectations, and don’t settle for mediocrity. Treat each internship, paid or unpaid, as if your future career depends on it. Do a good job in every job you do, even if you don’t like the job.

Doing a good job in any internship carries over into your future opportunities, and an impressive reference from your internship supervisor is invaluable. Stay in touch with your former employers and periodically update them about your life and career moves. They may even be able to offer advice or connections. After all, an internship is really a process of self-discovery. What you learn about yourself always matters more than what you can possibly learn about any particular job or task.


Doing More with Less on Language Access

This article was first published on the Migration Policy Institute’s Language Portal,  Migration Policy Institute ( is an independent think tank studying the migration of people worldwide.  Part of my job is overseeing Montgomery County, Maryland’s language access work. 

Like many counties and districts across the country, Maryland’s largest jurisdiction, Montgomery County, has experienced a rapid increase in its foreign-born population, doubling since 1990 to account for nearly 31 percent of the community’s 1 million residents. At the same time, Montgomery County faces a tight budgetary environment, like others across the country. In order to meet the growing needs of the limited English proficient (LEP) clients the county serves, we have learned to do more with less.

Below are some of the cost-conscious strategies we have used as part of our recently redesigned language access framework, which aims to achieve accountability, awareness, and cost-effectiveness in language access during these challenging times.

Negotiate Contract Costs
In order to negotiate the best price possible, it is important to know the market for which you are contracting for language services. We conducted a cost comparison of telephone interpretation contracts for a neighboring jurisdiction with similar demographics and found that our county was paying 13 to 33 cents more per minute for each call. Despite the fact that we used a different contractor than the neighboring jurisdiction, we were able to negotiate down our price per call to match the prices paid by the neighboring jurisdiction. The non-technical Spanish language interpretation rate has dropped by 33 cents a minute, and technical or non- Spanish language interpretation is down by 13 cents a minute. At the current volume of usage, Montgomery County can expect to save tens of thousands of dollars starting in fiscal year (FY)2011.

Hire Bilingual Employees
Bilingual staff is one of the most important language resources an organization can use for cost-effective language services. In Montgomery County, full-time employees who pass language tests receive a pay differential and are expected to make their best efforts to assist other employees and departments when asked, in addition to using their language skills on their own jobs. Based upon the telephone interpretation usage data of the past couple of years, we decided to certify the top six most used languages: Spanish, Chinese, French, Korean, Vietnamese, and Amharic, which account for 98 percent of all telephone interpretation needs.

Conduct Staff-Led Training
Training by staff instead of a contractor can save costs while increasing flexibility. Montgomery County had initially contracted with an outside organization to train county employees on working with LEPs. By moving training responsibilities in-house, we saved on contract costs and were also able to increase the frequency of classes and tailor the classes to different departments’ unique needs. As a result, the number of staff and managers trained jumped from 178 in FY 2009 to 488 in FY2010, a 174 percent increase.

Digitize Different Forms of Data
Centralizing and digitizing information into public and private databases can lower translation and printing costs and avoid duplication of efforts across lines of government.

  • To provide a one-stop resource for county staff and the public, we created a new website ( that contains an archive of translated documents submitted by the county’s various agencies.
  • Further, we automated translation of basic public documents in the top five most spoken languages. While automated translation is not used for any county documents that are actively distributed (such as print publications or media releases), it can be a practical and efficient tool to communicate basic content on over 26,000 pages on the county government’s website.
  • Internally, we also redesigned a bilingual employees database in order to make it more user-friendly and efficient for county staff seeking to locate bilingual employees for assistance. This has enabled the county to cut down on the need to rely on contracted service providers.

Share Resources 
Sharing resources across government agencies can save time and money. Departments and agencies can use existing contracts from other agencies for language services. In Montgomery County, the police department is the lead agency for the telephone interpretation contract and negotiates rates on behalf of all other agencies that use telephone interpretation under this contract.

Leverage Community Resources
Engaging with community organizations can be an effective strategy for providing alternative translation and interpretation services free of charge. Montgomery County runs a Volunteer Language Bank that provides free language services to both registered nonprofits and public agencies as a supplemental service. The county government also taps into community in-language media and service providers to distribute translated materials to maximize exposure and save printing costs.

Related documents:

Montgomery County, Maryland. 2010. Annual Report on Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Policy Implementation. [download]