In the Spring of 2016, the Department of Psychology at the University of South Florida (USF) began offering formal coursework tied to undergraduate internships, in an effort to enhance undergraduate psychology student success and to help serve the community in a meaningful way. Since then, a total of 1,335 undergraduate students have served in internships, at a variety of community agencies in the Tampa Bay Area, with most interns completing 100 internship hours during the semester.
But what can an undergraduate psychology student do at an internship? Unlike the popular practice of shadowing in the medical field, it is rare that undergraduate students can shadow a practicing psychologist or mental health professional, given the sanctity of the therapeutic relationship. Can you imagine finally taking the step to seek therapy and divulging your inner most concerns to your therapist, while a young college student watches? That situation could have a lasting negative impact on the therapeutic relationship and may lead clients to seek treatment elsewhere, or even to forgo treatment altogether.
Although there are some instances where undergraduate students can shadow mental health professionals ethically (such as with behavioral techniques or with child therapy), the large majority of internship opportunities need to be held outside of the individual therapy room. So where are all these USF undergraduate psychology students gaining career-related experience? Happily, there are a great many community agencies (like Agency for Community Treatment Services, Gracepoint, and Metropolitan Ministries) where interns can be trained in helping skills that are appropriate for their educational level. Training and supervision are provided on-site by the agency and supervisors are required to have a bachelor’s degree or higher and at least two years of related work experience. Many supervisors have a masters or doctoral degree.
For the Spring of 2022, there are 37 community agencies hosting one or more undergraduate psychology interns. Several students have been hired at their agency or have parlayed their internship experience into jobs after graduation and admission into graduate schools in the helping professions. In addition, each year a handful of interns have also presented a poster at the Annual USF Psychology Expo, to share information about psychology internships.
While it is wonderful and welcome news that these opportunities are available for students to take advantage of, it is disheartening to know that most of these internships are not funded. Students often must make a choice between getting career-relevant experience without pay or working at a job (such as the service industry), that is not consistent with their career goals in the mental health field. In addition, many students have had to pay for their own background checks and drug screening to be onboarded by their internship of interest. To begin ameliorating these issues, a group of donors developed the USF Psychology Student Success Fund.
Currently, the funds are being used to cover undergraduate interns’ out-of-pocket expenses, such as background checks and drug screening. The long-term goal is to develop stipends for partially paid or even fully paid internships in the community. Research suggests that paid internships are tied to better student outcomes than are unpaid internships, so there is certainly more work to be done. Thankfully, whether paid or unpaid, undergraduate psychology internships are a win-win-win endeavor. Students win by gaining valuable real-world experience in their field of choice, which is tied to both career success, and success in securing admissions to graduate school. Community agencies win by having additional help from dedicated, bright, and motivated undergraduate students, and they often can hire the cream of the crop, streamlining their selection and hiring procedures. More importantly, clients in these community agencies are receiving help from caring young people, who will hold their stories close to their hearts for the rest of their careers–that is a win-win-win endeavor.