There are a lot of lessons that people look back and say they wish they knew when they were 19.  It’s such a formative year for young adults; most people have graduated high school and are well on their way as a young adult.  The path people take varies, some have opted for college and are wrapping up their first year, some brave souls have signed up for the military and may already be seeing action and traveling the world.  There are some that jump right into the work force, unimpressed with what college life may offer them or out of need to help support their family.

I took the conventional route of going off to college.  When I was applying, I was accepted into my University’s “First Year College” program.  I enjoyed this program because it gave me a sense of direction as a freshman, it gave me opportunities to get involved on campus, take personality and interest surveys and the time to actually think about what I wanted to do.  How affective it was, I couldn’t say for sure as I ended up majoring in Business Management, what I pictured myself going into before I got to school in the first place.  Maybe the class was good if for nothing more than to confirm the inklings I already had.

So with my mind made up on Business Management, I should have been ready to go and jump into the business world to get some first hand experience after wrapping up my class freshman year.  So what did I do that summer?  I worked at a summer camp.  Not even a good summer camp to be honest with you, I worked for the city run camp close to my parent’s house.  There weren’t any cool camp grounds, we were literally in a trailer with a group of 30-five to twelve year olds, entrusted to find some activity that could engage a group that broad was a challenge in and of itself.  I’m not saying that it was a bad experience altogether, the kids were for the most part wonderful and it was fun, but what benefit does it really give me today?

I did get some experience in college that has benefited me in my post college days.  I did a co-op my senior year, actually I started the co-op the semester I was slated to graduate and postponed graduation for a semester.  I decided at the last minute that when looking at my resume, working at a summer camp, a pest extermination company and a loan officer’s office wasn’t really going to impress anyone.  The co-op was great, I got to work in the Research Triangle Park in Raleigh-Durham, met some great people that I am still in contact with, and although the work experience there doesn’t make it on my resume anymore, it was the definitely the key to getting my foot in the door to interview for my first job.

That first job was great and I’m not bitter about getting laid off.  I worked for one of the top consulting firms in the world and met a lot of great people while getting good experience.  There are ups and downs of consulting, when business is good there’s hardly a minute to breathe, but when the business isn’t coming in there’s a lot of downtime and they just can’t afford to keep people on the payroll that aren’t billable at a client.  I take a lot of my experience away from that job, but I also find myself at 26, unemployed and unsure of what I want to do and what skills I want to put into practice.  I was in a technology-oriented environment for three of four years, and the fourth year I was still on the computer 99% of the time.

I think the lesson I’ve learned is that I wish I had used those summers and school years while in college to find internships and understand more about business and the different aspects that I’d be interested in.

I don’t want to just limit this discussion to business settings either, I think there’s a lot to be said for getting internships/co-ops in any field you’re interested in.  So many companies out there love to get young talent that has the drive and initiative to find out about opportunities and pursue them.

There are companies out there that I would love to do an internship for but all of them require you to be enrolled in a four-year university.  Discovery Channel had internships in my hometown, and getting a foot in the door at a company like Nike or Under Armour, with a sports team, etc, what an opportunity.

Maybe some of the problem is that unless you’re one of the lucky ones that knows exactly what you want to do when you’re in high school or early in college, you have no idea where you would like to internship.  To that I say, who cares?  Find a company that you like and see what they’ve got to offer.  If they don’t have something that fits with what you want to do, find a contact and propose something.  Chances are they’re not going to turn down free/cheap labor and you’ll get a chance to roll up your sleeves and prove yourself.  Sure you’ll get some crap jobs and sure you’ll have to go get coffee and bagels, but you’ll also meet a lot of great people that are going to be interested in helping you advance your career once you’re out of school.

What if you hate your internship?  That’s great!  You’ve spent a summer finding out how you hate some type of work, rather than jumping into it while in the real world and having to change your career down the road.

There are a lot of lessons I may have missed or not listened to when I was younger and I am certainly not saying this is the only thing I wish I had learned, but I think in the current economic environment, the value of an internship and the contacts you make is immeasurable.