New Pitt program promises internships for all students who want one

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Looking to lure new students into its ranks and give graduates an edge amid a calloused job market, the University of Pittsburgh this semester unveiled an initiative that guarantees an internship to anyone who wants one.

For the 17,186 students eligible for this guarantee, program organizers say they've secured upcoming positions with exactly zero employers. Pitt expects the program to help many students get the valuable work experience they need to compete for jobs after graduation, but the school faces several challenges in fulfilling its guarantee.

Pitt's Internship Guarantee Program asks students to meet with career placement specialists six times, with each session focusing on a different part of preparing for an internship, such as resume writing or interview skills.

If a student completes the curriculum, Pitt guarantees an internship before graduation. To help students secure these new internships, Pitt hired two additional full-time staff members in its career services office. Previously, Pitt had just one internship coordinator.

Despite making the guarantee, which made its debut in materials given to all new students this August, the school still has no estimate on how many students will register for the program and no estimate of how many internships it can help secure, said internship coordinator Alyson Kavalukas.

"Right now, we're in the process of identifying employers," she said. "The actual internships aren't going to be until the summer and spring of next year, so as we find out at the very start of the program what opportunities students are looking for, we'll have several weeks, if not over a month, to be looking for internships."

Is Pitt's "guarantee" actually a guarantee? Maybe, said former federal judge Samuel Bufford.

"They're probably using the word loosely," said Mr. Bufford, who now teaches at the Penn State University Dickenson School of Law.

"If a student attended Pitt because of this program and doesn't get an internship, they would have a case. They could take it to court and it wouldn't likely be dismissed as frivolous," he said.

One reason Pitt couldn't make estimates before making its guarantee, Ms. Kavalukas said, is that organizers believed their program to be the first of its kind. Without any other schools to model a program on, Pitt had to create one from scratch.

But the University of Memphis has a similar program, which it based off another initiative at Old Dominion University in Virginia, said Dixie Crase, who runs the Internship Guarantee Program at Memphis.

The size of Memphis' student body is about 17,000 undergraduates, nearly the same as Pitt's.

Also akin to Pittsburgh, the city of Memphis plays host to many employers in the medical and nonprofit fields, Ms. Crase said.

In its first year, more than 2,000 students enrolled in Memphis' program, which also asks students to meet with career services to review similar job-seeking topics that Pitt's curriculum will cover. Now in its third year, the program at Memphis works with 2,500 students each semester.

Pitt could see comparable turnout in its first year. The school has already held four internship sessions, and all were filled to capacity, said Cheryl Finlay, director of Pitt's Office of Career Development & Placement Assistance. She declined to say what the session capacity is.

At Memphis, Ms. Crase said that accommodating so many students can present a challenge.

"I wouldn't stand here and say every single student who wanted an internship got one, but I personally have not had that experience," she said. "We have tried to help students understand that what they're guaranteed is just an opportunity to pursue an internship."

Whenever possible, Memphis works to obtain commitments from partner employers. Pitt has not yet sought commitments from employers, Ms. Finlay said.

Ms. Finlay said Pitt wasn't aware of the program at Memphis, but will reach out to that school to identify best practices.

Unlike Memphis, included in Pitt's definition of an "internship" is a study-abroad experience and extended volunteer positions.

Pitt is also looking to its professors to provide research assistant positions, which also fulfill the internship guarantee.

Regardless of the turnout, Ms. Finlay added, Pitt's use of a guarantee program is a statement in and of itself.

"This is a bold statement that Pitt is making," she said, "that we care and are invested in our students so much that we're putting the resources in place to make this a reality."

In its 2012 rankings, the Princeton Review named Pitt's career services office No. 19 in the nation.

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