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One year later, UNC students navigate their summer plans amid the pandemic

Tran Nguyen, a junior media and journalism major, poses in front of Carroll Hall, home of the Hussman School of Media and Journalism, on Thursday March 4, 2021.

During the summer of 2020, canceled internships, research programs and scholarship fundings were the usual for students due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

UNC students have restarted their search for academic and career opportunities this summer, as more organizations are offering remote programs.

Remote internships

Senior Korie Dean said last summer she received internship funding through the Hussman School of Journalism and Media to work at a local newspaper in Hillsborough. 

But when the pandemic hit, both the funding and internship were canceled, Dean said.

Dean said she will be a data reporting intern this summer for The Virginian-Pilot, the daily newspaper serving Norfolk, Virginia. She said she found the internship through the Dow Jones News Fund last semester and received a position through the newspaper.

The reporting will mostly be remote, she said.

“I think at this point, we’re learning to live with a pandemic, so people had close to a year to figure out what worked last summer and what didn’t work,” Dean said. “It was definitely something that was in my mind as I was applying.”

Jay Eubank, director of career services for the Hussman School, said that was a common concern students expressed when discussing their potential summer plans.

“Last summer, it was so sudden when companies had to pivot," Eubank said. "Some just could not understand how to do an internship in the midst of a pandemic. This summer, we’re in a much better spot in terms of opportunities being offered to students.”

There are employers that rely heavily on postgraduate interns to be the starting point for full-time jobs at those companies, Eubank said. Agencies could not handle not having two cycles of potential employees interning with them, he said.

Eubank said the downside to a remote internship is not being physically present in the office and seeing what the work culture is like there.

“But, I still think you can have a really good experience if the employer is committed to thinking through how they can help mentor students virtually — how they can make sure they have meaningful projects to do,” Eubank said.

Tran Nguyen, a junior majoring in media and journalism on the advertising and public relations track, said Eubank introduced her to the Multicultural Advertising Intern Program — a program that provides students and creatives of color opportunities in the advertising industry and pairs fellows with a host agency for a fellowship.

“The company I’m going to work for is one of my dream agencies,” she said. “I’ve already decided that this is what I want, whether it’s with this agency or another company. For me, this is pretty set in stone.”

Academic opportunities

Em Chittenden, a first-year student majoring in astrophysics, said they will be taking summer classes to catch up on their major requirements, as some of their high school credits did not end up transferring to UNC. As a result, Chittenden is taking Calculus of Functions of One Variable I this semester to try to stay on track for their course requirements.

“I’m working on it,” Chittenden said. “I feel like, at the end of my first year, I should have this one class I need for my major."

Chittenden said they are interested in taking a women's and gender studies class during the summer because of their own relationship with gender. 

Beyond summer classes, Chittenden said they are interested in applying for a trip to West Virginia, available to students who took Introduction to Astronomy: The Solar System. The trip includes opportunities to operate telescopes and other hands-on activities.

“The only thing is, with COVID, things are uncertain,” Chittenden said. “It said on the applications that you’ll probably need to have your vaccine to come, and since I’m not a frontline worker, I don’t think I’ll be able to get a vaccine yet. I’m just kind of playing it by ear during these uncertain times.”

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This uncertainty holds true for Kartik Tyagi, a sophomore majoring in health policy and management. 

Tyagi said he has been looking into a few research programs in addition to opportunities provided by the North Carolina Division of Public Health. 

Tyagi said he serves as an assistant coordinator for Harvard Medical School’s Global COVID-19 Response Technical Support Group. This group supports the development of recommendations governing protocols for COVID-19 antibody test surveillance, and he said he's looking to possibly continue his work there over the summer.

Tyagi said he recognizes the struggles that come with the pandemic and the issues it might present for his summer plans.

“I think it’s important to also take a step back and enjoy the journey,” Tyagi said. “I’ll be finding ways to take some time for myself, going on hikes and enjoying the outdoors. Of course, internships are valuable and offer some great experience, but I also think taking some time for ourselves as students isn’t a bad idea at all.”

Taking a break

For some students, this summer will allow them to pursue their career interests outside of UNC. For others, it will allow them to unwind from the mental fatigue of online classes.

First-year Nicolas Moya Pinedo, a Carolina Away student studying biology, said he will be taking this summer to travel with friends, work for DoorDash and attend his mother’s wedding — all while taking the necessary COVID-19 precautions.

Moya Pinedo said his first year at UNC seemed more like a hassle than what he was expecting.

“I can’t lie — sometimes, it feels like I’m not really learning or retaining that much,” he said. “It’s more like professors give us the railroad tracks, but we’re not given any of the nails or hammers to actually put it in place.”

As a biology student, Moya Pinedo said he has to navigate through STEM courses virtually. The process is more taxing when he has questions, because it involves joining a new Zoom call after an already long day of staring at a computer, he said.

Moya Pinedo said this summer, he is going to take time for himself before the fall semester begins.

“I am going to be in chill mode, like 150 percent,” he said.