The Internship Program, which was designed to provide students with practical professional work experience, began 1968 with 12 students enrolled. By the summer of 1974 there were 69 students in the program working on internships with 40 agricultural firms and agencies. The program was a natural extension of the College’s emphasis on educating students to meet the needs of agricultural business, industry, extension education, and government agencies. Dean James Dollahon and Animal Science faculty member, Dr. Peery Johnston, were the program’s initial architects, organizing and promoting the program. Internships are basically opportunities for students to have temporary employment or appointment in the business community or with a government service agency. Internships offer students two very important opportunities. First, an internship gives a student insight into the structure of a business, its day-to-day operations, and the skills needed to be successful as an employee. Students sometimes have little or no understanding as to the actual nature of the work done by a business or agency. Some students may, in fact, have an erroneous impression as to the duties performed by an employee and, upon learning the true nature of the work, they may decide to pursue an alternative major and career. Through this program students gain practical experience in the type of work in which they hope to be employed after graduation. Needless to say, these experiences cannot be obtained in the classroom. Most employers prefer to hire graduates with experience. Internships have given many college graduates an inherent advantage for competing in the job market.
Faculty supervision and involvement are seen as key factors in the success of this program. The faculty supervisors have been a critical link between the university and the businesses and agencies utilizing interns.
By 1980 the internship program became developed to the point where a full-time director was required. The Director collected and posted internship position opportunities, arranged for job interviews, coordinated the hiring process with the employers, aided students in registering for internship credit, held orientation sessions prior to students going out on their jobs, and served as the general point of contact for everyone involved.
The first Director was Judy Tomesh. Her position and a newly dedicated internship office were initially funded by a Cooperative Edcuation grant from the Department of Education. The internship office was housed in a converted laboratory previously under the control of the Animal and Food Science Department. The loss of the lab and subsequent conversion to an administrative office was rather strongly resisted by the department. With the acquisition of federal funds, the program was renamed as the Cooperative Education and Internship Program, and was closely modeled after a program at Northeastern University in Boston. The Northeastern program, which was the first of its nature in the U.S., was developed for an undergraduate engineering program, and required participating students to sign up for two successive internship or “coop” experiences. Adopting such a program for an agricultural college was somewhat experimental at the time, and watched closely by the funding agency. The experiment was reasonably successful, but for various reasons the Northeastern model did not fully catch on in River Falls. Nevertheless, several improvements made possible by the federal grant, which provided funds over a five-year period, are still apparent. Judy Tomesh was succeeded by a new Director, Jean O’Brien, in the mid 1980’s. Assistant Dean, Gerald Matteson, assumed directorship around 1990.
The Cooperative Education and Internship program was guided by an Advisory Council consisting consisting of employers and College faculty members. In addition to the internship program, the Advisory Council also recommended holding an annual career fair on campus where students seeking internships or even permanent employment could interact informally with perspective employers. The career fair, which employed a salaried student chairperson, was exclusively conducted by the College Internship Office for many years, and has been seen as a very successful program. Today it is a university-wide endeavor attracting well over a hundred employers to the campus each year.
In spite of the appointment of a full-time program director and other grant required program improvements, it has always been the faculty members themselves who have had most of the contacts with employers. They have strongly promoted the program among employers and students and arranged for students to fill specific internship positions. Faculty members also provided oversight while the students were out on the job. Each student was visited at the job site at least once during the internship period. This is in contrast with the internship programs at some institutions where a single coordinator or director arranges for the positions and also conducts on site supervision regardless of the major involved. UWRF faculty members eagerly embraced the internship supervision responsibility not only for the summer employment opportunity, but because it is an ideal means for staying in direct contact with agribusinesses and other employers.
Internships were generally designed as 10-12 week summer work experiences taking place when students were not attending classes. Some students and employers preferred internships during regular semesters, however, and these options were always available. Most internships were set up as paid positions, albeit usually at less than a full-time wage scale. However, positions with some public service or certain government agencies provided only unpaid volunteer positions. Most interns were placed in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and northern Iowa. Occasionally there are positions in other mid-western states or other parts of the country such as the Epcot Center in Florida.
The internship program required students to register for college credit. A normal 12-week internship provided six quarter credits or four semester credits.
Agricultural cooperatives always have been and continue to be major employers of student interns. The adoption of field scouting as a pest management tool opened up numerous summer intern positions, not only with co-ops but also private crop consulting firms. During the 1990s the Cennex cooperative recruited dozens of summer interns from universities, colleges, and technical schools all over the mid-west for placement in agronomic positions such as field scouts and field agronomists in a five-state area. The interns were all brought together for orientation and a brief training session prior to going out on the job. During the orientation period the students were given a practicum type exam in agronomy, soils, and pest control subjects. Scores achieved by UW-RF students often filled or were among the top five in the group.